An article in this morning's Times makes what on the face of it is an alarming claim. 'Hundreds of criminals are on the run in England and Wales and overseas after absconding while on parole or early release from jail, according to government figures', the paper claims. They include 'killers and rapists', who are 'at large despite being recalled to jail more than a year ago.'
The article quotes Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, who sounds suitably concerned:
'Disturbing figures like these do nothing to increase public confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system to punish offenders and keep people safe.
'It is unacceptable that the authorities are failing to put back in prison so many offenders who have breached the terms of their release, especially those guilty of violent and sexual crimes.'
Let's put to one side Mr Khan's comments about the ability of the criminal justice system to punish and protect, while noting in passing that the vast majority of some of the most serious and violent offences never end in the successful conviction of an offender, and never will. Do these figures represent an 'unacceptable' failure by the authorities?
The story is based on a Freedom of Information request, which can be found here. The figures show that there are 821 individuals who have been released from prison at the end of their sentence who have subsequently been subject to recall (i.e. they have been ordered to return to prison).
It is important to be clear that these are individuals who have been released from prison having served their sentence. They are 'on the run' because they have subsequently been judged to have breached the terms of their release.
The reasons for the recalls to custody vary. In 60 percent of cases - some 488 - it is for being 'out of touch with the probation service'; something that could be the result of a range of failings, from active avoidance to "can't be bothered" or a genuine misunderstanding.
In only 12 percent of the cases (98) is the recall due to 'poor behaviour'. Only four percent (33) were subject to recall as a result of being charged with a further offence.
In summary, the majority of the breaches are likely to be down to oversight or downright bloody-mindedness on the part of the individual, not further offences liable to lead to imprisonment.
Put in a broader perspective, the numbers are also tiny. In 2012 more than 85,500 people were released from prisons in England and Wales, more than 300 each day, when weekends and public holidays are discounted. The 821 ex-prisoners currently 'on the run' represent less than one percent of this total. For a system as complex as the release and recall of prisoners, a less than one percent 'fail' rate strikes me as pretty impressive.
We should also recall that while most murderers are apprehended, most sexual predators are not. Those concerned about the safety of the public and the prevention of violent victimisation are looking in the wrong place if they think the criminal justice system offers meaningful protection and resolution.
Postscript, added 17:20, July 17, 2013: The Times headline was 'Murderers among 800 prisoners on the run'. References to 'killers' and 'rapists' also feature strongly in the article.
The data itself tells a different story. Only two percent (15) of the 821 former prisoners in breach of their release conditions were convicted of homicide and only four percent (32) of sexual offences.
The most common offence group was drug offences (185, or 23 percent) and fraud or forgery (163, or 20 percent). Between them these two groups comprise almost half of former prisoners 'on the run'.
Of course 'fraudsters and drug dealers on the run' does not quite cut it as a headline. The Times will also argue that they focused on those offences that are of most concern to the public.
Nonetheless, the headline risks misleading the reader into thinking that the 'threat' posed by this tiny group of already released prisoners is far greater than it actually is.