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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 

Louise Casey and engaging communities in fighting crime.

It can't be a bad life being Louise Casey, former "respek" tsar and now delivering blue sky thinking on the criminal justice system as a whole. No doubt being generously remunerated, she last week received the Order of the Bath in the Queen's birthday honours. Not bad for what most people consider the most heinous of failures, as the anti-social behaviour order thinking which she did so much to influence is being binned, whilst reoffending rates among the young taken through the criminal justice system spiral to all-time highs, with the highest number ever imprisoned also achieved.

Casey is therefore the perfect choice to deliver either her coup de grace or the start of something which could go anywhere, which is her "Engaging communities in fighting crime" (PDF) report. Here's the paradox that runs throughout her tortuous and at times combative, some would say grating prose: Casey agrees that in actual fact, on the crime front, much is rosy. She completely agrees with all the experts and seasoned commentators that however you frame it, crime has fallen dramatically over the last 10 years. What's more, victims are receiving a better standard of care from the CJS; there are record numbers of police officers and the neighbourhood policing teams are working well; public concern about anti-social behaviour, despite indications to the contrary, has fallen; the CJS has been reformed substantially, with more offenders than ever brought to justice and sentenced more harshly than previously; and 93% now pay fines which are handed down from court, probably because the bailiffs are now being employed to follow them up.

All this progress is however not enough for Casey: despite these improvements, the public's view of the situation on crime and the CJS is exceptionally poor, with hardly anyone trusting the statistics and none having faith in the system to protect the victims rather than the offenders. This, according to Casey, is a Very Bad Thing. She doesn't seem to think however that this is the direct result of the government giving up on attempting to make its point, or that it has in fact given in to the very worst of the scaremongering about the crime situation by accepting much of the tabloid critique of where justice is failing, and therefore encouraging this view that crime is worse than it is because the prisons are full and sentences are forever being toughened; she instead decides it's directly a result of the criminal justice system and its failing to provide adequate information, whilst also not being prepared to listen to the public, however ill-informed and reactionary they are. This is in fact is Casey directly disregarding the above view:

There are some who argue that the Government and the Criminal Justice System must not allow itself to be swayed by public opinion; that pandering to public opinion leads to ‘mob rule’ and an uncivilised society. But, currently, the system is so far away from pandering to public opinion that this seems the remotest of risks and, if anything, there is a greater risk of the public withdrawing even further from the active part they need to play. Radical change is needed to get the public more engaged in tackling crime and to stop the erosion of community spirit.

How Casey can come out with such abject piffle after 10 years of the government of which she's technically a part of pandering to the very worst of tabloid demands over crime and punishment is dismaying on its own; what's more dismaying is that she actually seems to believe it.

That is the main flaw in the report. Rather than there being a problem either with Casey's analysis, most of her conclusions or the methods used to gauge public opinion for the study, what it comes down to is Casey's tone, not just in her casual dismissal of concerns over "human rights", as evidenced by her interview on this morning's BBC Breakfast, it's in her moral righteousness which she expresses throughout. Here are a couple of samples just from her introduction:

This review is not a strategy or statement of government policy. Rather it is an analysis of what I have found by looking at the evidence, talking to the powers that be, the frontline workers and above all, the public. It’s a common-sense view on what further changes need to be made to build confidence and trust, and some suggestions on how those changes should happen.

Whenever someone invokes "common-sense", you have to set your bullshit meter to a higher level than it was previously on. So it proves in the conclusion to her introduction:

Most of all I would urge policy makers, professionals, lobby groups and law makers to take note of one thing – the public are not daft. They know what’s wrong, they know what’s right, and they know what they want on crime and justice. And it’s time action was taken on their terms.

Well no, the public aren't daft, and of course they know what they think is wrong and what's right and what they want. What matters is whether those thoughts are actually implementable, not likely to make things worse is in the long-term rather than better, and which don't infringe on the rights of us all. Judging by some of the responses which feature in the report, some of them would certainly fall short on not just one, but all three such measures. It would have been nice for Casey to have pointed out that the public are not infallible, and that public opinion is not always the best barometer of what to go by in politics. Instead she wishes to set herself up as a crusader for what the public demands, a bellwether that can get things done. That this is not always the best way to achieve change should surely not be necessary to point out to her.

One of the main problems I have with the conclusions, or rather what she proposes, is in essence nothing to do with them at all; it's that they're not collected in the actual report at any stage for ease of reading, instead spreading them throughout the report. That this will make the casual reader despair instantly isn't encouraging for the chances of anyone outside saddos like myself or policy wonks reading the thing. Once you've got through relative sections and past such incisive contributions from the public as calling the CPS the "criminal protection service" and "I'm all for human rights but what about the people who have been victims?" the great majority are benign, or indeed, generally ones that would help to improve the system. The headlines have predictably been on the high visibility jackets and posters of the convicted, on which more in a second, but the recommendations on the creation of a Public Commissioner on Crime, for the Victims' Surcharge to be directly spent on projects that support victims and a Victims' Compensation Fund and for separate seating arrangements in courts (a bugbear of a certain Ms Newlove) are all sound ones. Less instantly positive are Casey's proposals for the expansion of anonymous witness protection, which greatly increase the potential for miscarriages of justice and for the dragging through the courts of personal vendettas, even if only to be expanded to the "vulnerable", i.e. the disabled and elderly, as it then raises the question on where the line itself will be eventually drawn.

As alluded to above, the most contentious of Casey's proposals are on what needs to be changed in the community service system. Straight off the bat, she wants it to be renamed to "Community Payback". That community service is not all just about directly serving those who have been wronged but also about helping to rehabilitate the offender, something that has been shown to be highly challenging to next to impossible in prison itself goes out of the window entirely; indeed, Casey wants it to be directly tended out to private firms rather than operated by the probation service. That this will just add another layer of bureaucracy when the private firms need to refer an offender back if they haven't turned up or have refused to take part seems to have passed Casey by. Thankfully, the poster idea doesn't seem to have actually turned up in the report itself, and there also isn't a specific mention of those on it having to wear a bib or sash declaring they are on "Community Payback"; all she makes clear is that the punishment should be visible and demanding, and not something that the public themselves would choose to do. That in some areas this might leave those in charge with very little to actually get those on "Community Payback" to do also seems to have been ignored; where there isn't graffiti to be cleaned or rubbish to be picked up, which incidentally often are jobs that are done also by those getting paid, what exactly will be they doing? Breaking rocks? Doing push-ups? Casey doesn't say. Also, as has been pointed out, in some areas those on community service already are highly visible and do the above. That it doesn't seem to have altered the impression that it's a soft option, possibly because that's what the popular press always refers to it as, regardless of how much the government toughens it doesn't seem to have registered.

It's this that lets the report down because so much else in it is praiseworthy. All of her recommendations on how to tackle the lack of trust in the statistics relating to crime are excellent ones which deserve to be adopted immediately: an wholly independent body that releases them, a Statistics Authority that draws up a protocol on the responsible use of such figures that all, including politicians, the media and interest groups would be expected to sign up to, information on local crime published monthly, and crime maps available online. There's also this quite wonderful piece of information on just how the public react when told about crime going up or down that really ought to have shaped the whole report:

In a survey of 1,808 members of the public for the review, when told crime had decreased and asked who should take the credit, 46% credited the police, 21% said they didn’t believe crime had decreased, and only 15% credited the Government.

But when told crime had increased and asked who should take most of the blame, 42% blamed the Government, 32% blamed parents and only 20% blamed the police.

Interestingly, while a significant number of people spontaneously challenged the statement that crime had decreased, none challenged the statement that it had increased. And only 12% blamed criminals for an increase in crime.

That's the sort of bullshit challenging research that could have been the centrepiece of Casey's investigation. Instead, rather than directly challenging the public and such orthodoxy, she panders to it, and criticises others for being patronising towards the public by not taking their views seriously enough. There has to be a middle way: accepting that the public's concerns are real, that change is necessary in most of the cases where Casey has pointed out, but also directly challenging some of the notions which the public has that simply aren't backed by the current evidence base. We haven't yet found such a solution, and there certainly isn't one on the horizon, nor is it here in this report.

David Howarth - Toughing it out on justice

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A few thoughts about community service.

I no longer have any faith in fines for convictions that do not warrant imprisonment. The system of fines cannot take account of wealth differences and no system could ever be invented. The richest individuals can pay the maximum fine for petty offences such as urinating in public, traffic or parking misdemeanours, littering etc without the fine feeling like a punishment. (Gordon Ramsey boasted on BBC TV about the number of parking fines that he paid, remarking that it would not make any difference to his anti-social behaviour.) Thus I feel that we need to introduce nominal fines -- a contribution to the cost of policing an offence, in the same way that speed camera fines work -- with community service as the primary punishment.

England (I can't comment about the three other UK members) is a filthy country. Local authorities employ people, of course, to clean up but the results are inadequate. Additionally, there are volunteer organisations who clean up mess in the coutryside and perform reconstruction work on paths etc. Our land could be a lot cleaner with a few more community service workers.

Two problems immediately spring to mind. More community service requires a bigger probation service to administer it. Like you, I don't follow the argument about contracting community service to the private sector. However, the cost of a bigger probation service might be offset by higher rehabilitation rates.

Secondly, anyone performing clean-up work might be regarded by bystanders as an offender, even when the cleaner-upper was a council employee or volunteer. Which is where my recipe for justice reform falls apart. Requiring offenders to wear identifiable clothing during community service is a repugnant proposition. But surely there are ways around this? Performing community service clean-up work in areas that are less visible or frequented?

My response is here.

It is a stumper, isn't it? I didn't mention it in the post, but I especially dislike the term "Community Payback" because of the immediate impression it gives that rather than it simply being a punishment, this is the public taking revenge, something which is untenable in any justice system worthy of the name.

I think the other major solution, which Casey doesn't mention is restorative justice, brought up by David Howarth in his post. Where used, it tends to have a decent effect. Sometimes making warring parties, as is often the case in the anti-social behaviour which so excises Casey, sit down and face each other is far more of a solution than getting them to wash off graffiti.

Excellent post, incidentally.

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