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The Potential Consequences of Kenneth Clarke’s Crime Policy

If Home Secretaries are judged by the amount of crime during their time in office then Kenneth Clarke must rank as the worst Home Secretary ever. He held the office from April 1992 to May 1993 when crime was higher than it had ever been before and has ever been since. It started to fall only when Clarke’s policies were reversed by Michael Howard.

As Justice Secretary he now runs prisons, and from his comments this week he has learnt little from his time at the Home Office in the 1990s. He now argues for reducing the prison population by lowering the number of offenders sentenced to prison and reducing long sentences. Why, he asks, is the prison population twice what it was when he was last at the Home Office in 1993?

His time at the Home Office coincided with the highest police-recorded crime figures ever, and the increase was in large measure the result of the policies he and his predecessors pursued. Repeat cautions were preferred to custody, the 1991 Criminal Justice Act required judges to give less weight to previous convictions when sentencing criminals, car theft had been downgraded in importance and early release at the half-way stage of sentences under four years was made automatic. Despite huge increases in crime the average prison population was reduced from nearly 50,000 in 1988 to 44,500 in 1993. The impact of Michael Howard’s policy of ‘prison works’ was not felt until the 1994 figures showed an increase to 48,800.

Recorded crime surged by over 20% during the early 1990s, from 4.544 million crimes in 1990 to 5.592 million in 1992. It took until 1997 to get it back down to 4.598 million by putting an additional 15,000 career criminals behind bars.

Releasing criminals and cutting the prisons budget would be a false economy

If Mr Osborne is tempted by Mr Clarke’s offer to cut the prison budget, he should realise that cutting the £2.2 billion cost of the prison service would be a false economy. From time to time the Home Office has made estimates of the total social and economic costs of crime, including the insurance and security measures we have to pay for, the cost of personal injuries and lost property, and the additional costs to the criminal justice system of allowing repeat criminals the freedom to carry on offending.

What would be the cost of releasing a criminal from jail who would otherwise be committing offences. The total social and economic cost of crimes against individuals and households in 2003-04 was £36.2 billion and there were 12.168 million crimes against individuals and households, an average cost of £2,972 per crime.

A Home Office survey of offenders being admitted to prison in 2000 found that they committed on average 140 crimes per year. If the average cost of each crime was £2,900 then the total annual cost would be £406,000. Compared with the cost of prison the saving is vast. The annual cost of a prison place in 2008-09 according to the prison service annual report was £29,561. But £406,000 is the cost to society as a whole. What about the cost to the Government?

20% of the total social and economic cost was incurred by the criminal justice system, £7.1 billion, including the cost of policing and processing and re-processing offenders through the courts. The average cost per crime just counting those costs would be £594, which means that the annual cost to the criminal justice system of an offender carrying out 140 crimes per year would be £83,200.

This means that, if Kenneth Clarke releases criminals he will be adding to the Home Office bill (for the police) and his own department’s bill (for the courts). According to Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit, processing one criminal on one occasion in a crown court (£30,500) costs more than keeping him in prison for a year (£29,600).

Much of the health care cost in patching up people who have been harmed by criminals would also fall on the NHS, estimated at another 7% by the Home Office, a total annual cost of £2.4 billion – on its own more than the total cost of the prison service (£2.2 billion).

Another 12% was the result of lost output, £4.3 billion. If criminals are released and crime increases the lost output would reduce tax revenues.

We are a high-crime society

Kenneth Clark recently said that there was exaggerated fear of crime. But, the simple fact is that crime is historically high. In 1950 there were just over 1,000 crimes per 100,000 population; in 1992, the post-war peak, there were nearly 11,000; and in 2008-09 about 8,500. Even after significant falls, crime is well over eight times what it was in 1950. Crime in England and Wales is also high compared with other European countries. In 2004 the European Union’s Crime and Safety Survey looked at 18 countries and found that the UK was a ‘crime hotspot’, along with Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark. And in 2007 the latest Eurostat figures for the 27 EU members, England and Wales had the third worst crime rate.

Contrary to elite claims, we are not a punitive society

Critics of prison often claim that the British people are punitive, an opinion usually supported by showing that we have more offenders in prison per 100,000 population than other developed countries. The EU average is 122 and the figure for England and Wales is 147. However, the more significant comparison is between the prison population and the number of crimes. If a nation has a large amount of crime it should have a higher proportion of people in jail, if its criminal justice system is working effectively. The EU average (27 countries) in 2007 was 21 prisoners per 1,000 crimes. The figure for England and Wales was lower at 16. In fact 18 out of the 27 countries had higher rates of imprisonment.

Far from being vindictive, Government figures show that the most persistent offenders are not jailed. In 2008 criminals who had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions were given custody in only 40% of cases when they were convicted of a serious (indictable) crime. Robbery is one of the most serious violent crimes and includes street mugging. The custody rate has fallen since 1997, when it was 72%. In 2008 it was only 60%.

Prison works

Crime has fallen because of the increased use of prison since 1993, when the prison population was 45,600. By 1997 the Conservatives had increased it to 62,000 – up 36%. Labour continued the policy and when Lord Carter reviewed Blair’s policy in 2003 he concluded that crime would ‘fall dramatically’ if persistent offenders were jailed. Labour continued to increase the prison population to nearly 85,000 when it left office. Based on the estimate of 140 crimes per year, the incarceration of an additional 23,000 offenders since 1997 would have saved over 3.2 million crimes.

Short sentences don’t reduce offending because they should be long sentences

The Lib-Dems also disapprove of short sentences and want them replaced by community sentences. They disregard the fact that short sentence do not reduce crime because criminals who deserve long sentences are only being given short ones. Even when Parliament has stipulated a minimum sentence, shorter terms are given. Since 2000 the law has required that on a third or subsequent conviction for household burglary an offender should receive a minimum of three years. In 2008, under 20% were given that sentence. The others were given shorter custodial sentences and over 16% were not given custody at all.

The most rigorous community sentences have failed to reduce offending

The most rigorous community sentence has been the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP). In October 2005 the final report was published and found that 91% of offenders who had taken part in ISSP were reconvicted within the two-year follow up. The failure of the scheme has been confirmed by an independent study carried out by a team from the University of Portsmouth, which included a former senior Home Office official. The authors concluded that ISSP had not provided adequate surveillance to ensure public protection; not been rigorously enforced; not had a positive effect on offenders’ attitudes; not provided supervision appropriate to offenders’ ages; not improved offenders’ life chances; not provided strong boundaries; not brought structure into young offenders’ lives; and not separated offenders from damaging environments or peers. Between 2001 and 2007 ISSP cost £77m, which means it was more costly than other community sentences and less effective.

The therapeutic state

Kenneth Clarke seems to be in denial about the simplest of facts. If you lock up a criminal who would otherwise be thieving, you cut crime. If you lock up the most prolific offenders, namely the 100,000 who are thought to commit half of all crime, you cut crime dramatically. Above all, the Coalition does not accept the fundamental liberal precept that we should be seen as free individuals, each responsible for our own actions. Criminals are not patients being treated by the ‘therapeutic state’, they are free people who made the wrong choice. Ironically the Lib-Dems are the main obstacle to a genuinely liberal approach based on personal responsibility, an approach that should be the heart of policy on crime as well as the renewal of civil society implied by the Big-Society agenda. The big danger for the Coalition Government is that adopting Lib-Dem policies will lead to an increase in crime when we already have enough problems to cope with.

Notes for editors

This briefing has been prepared by David Green, Director of Civitas.

Tel: 020 7799 6677

Civitas, 55 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QL


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