Criminal justice harsher and more punitive than ever

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Alarming reading in The Daily Telegraph this morning, at least for those who want to see more people sent to prison and for longer.

I am not one of those people. I am in favour of a radical downsizing and abolition of imprisonment as a response to the social problems we call 'crime'. I'm also a bit of a nerd when it comes to criminal justice data and trends.

So when I read in this morning's Telegraph that 'half of the convicted sex offenders, violent criminals and burglars in England and Wales are avoiding prison because of the rise in community sentences', my reaction tended more towards the facepalm than to an anxious moment of net curtain twitching.

In essence the Telegraph claims that a derisory proportion of individuals found guilty of certain offences in 2012 were sent to prison. To quote from the story:

'Just 53 percent of convicted paedophiles who abused children under 13 were jailed in 2012, while half of convicted drug dealers also avoided jail. Overall, just one in four criminals was sent to jail when lesser offences were taken into account.'

Sounds alarming huh?

The story is based on a parliamentary question put down by shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP. Commenting on the figures, Mr Khan told the Telegraph: 'This will be an insult to many victims of crime who want to see those who committed crimes against them properly punished and rehabilitated'.

Not to be outdone, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell said 'There is a malaise at the heart of the criminal justice system'. His Conservative colleague Priti Patel agreed:

'Once again we see the criminal justice system letting down victims of serious crimes because the courts are too soft on paedophiles and other horrendous criminals'.

Who are these 'paedophiles' who are getting off without a prison sentence?

Today's Telegraph offers one example, in an unconnected story about a 30-year-old teaching assistant given a suspended prison sentence for sending explicit text messages and naked pictures to a 14-year-old boy. 'This young lady is remarkably immature', the judge in the case remarked, 'and is totally unsuited to a career in teaching'.

Many would agree with this judgement. Few, I think, would argue that the woman in question should have been locked up.

There is, in fact, so much that is wrong with the Telegraph story that is difficult to know where to start. But here goes.

This first graph, taken from the Criminal Justice Quarterly statistics, shows the underlying trends between 2002 and 2012 in relation to police recorded crime data, the numbers of defendants who went to court, and the numbers found guilty.

It shows that the number of suspected crimes recorded by the police has declined by more than one third since 2002. Last month the Chief Inspector of Police told MPs it was 'almost certain' that the police fiddled crime data. And while this might account for some of the fall, the reasons are also more complex, as I try to explain here.

Whatever the reason for the fall in police recorded crime it has, unsurprisingly, resulted in fewer people going to court and fewer being found guilty.

So what has happened to those found guilty? The next graph shows the trends in imprisonment and community sentencing.

Contrary to the claim made by The Daily Telegraph, the use of community sentences have not risen in recent years. It has fallen. The numbers sentenced to imprisonment have remained largely stable.

Relative to the decline in suspected offences being recorded by the police, to the fewer prosecutions and fewer guilty verdicts, the resort to imprisonment has therefore increased.

Those readers of The Daily Telegraph, and other papers, who want to see a greater resort to imprisonment should feel reassured. For the rest of us? It's facepalm time again.

What about the imprisonment rate - the proportion of individuals given a prison sentence following a guilty verdict - that so worries The Daily Telegraph? The next graph shows the trends in the imprisonment rate for violence, sexual, burglary, robbery and drugs offences.

The imprisonment rate for sexual and drug offences has been stable over the past decade, while rising in the case of violence and burglary offences. This hardly bespeaks of a crisis of sentencing softness.

The imprisonment rate for robbery offences has declined; a welcome correction to the sentencing overreaction that characterised the late 1990s.

Finally, what of sentence lengths? Across all offences, the average sentence length increased by just shy of two months between 2002 and 2012. The graph below shows the trends for the same five offence groups already examined.

Violence, burglary and sexual offences saw increases in sentence length, particularly sexual offences. Drug offence sentences have declined slightly. Robbery offence sentences are on the rise again after an earlier fall.

Those who would see far more people being sent to prison and for longer, including for the most petty and inconsequential of lawbreaking, will no doubt continue to argue for an increase in the imprisonment rate and sentence length.

Those in favour of a fairer, more evidenced criminal justice system might at least be able to agree that there is a malaise at the heart of the criminal justice system. It's harsher, more punitive and more dehumanising than ever.