We will never have an effective criminal justice system until we focus on stopping problem and criminal behaviour

Barbara Wilding
Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to return to King's College and grateful for this invitation to address you.

The police service has a unique position within the Criminal Justice System in that our work is so diverse that a large proportion of what we do doesn’t actually involve criminal justice. It makes us very different to the other parts. I just want to make that point at the outset.

This afternoon, I’m going to talk about problem and criminal behaviour and the role of the Criminal Justice System. I’m going to look at the growing expectation held by much of the population that the Criminal Justice System should be preventing and eradicating behavioural problems and that its failure to do so is because of a lack of toughness. Indeed, the current competition amongst political parties to be toughest on crime and disorder is undoubtedly a factor in the development of national strategy and state directed penal culture.

My concerns centre around the fact that the Criminal Justice System is now expected to solve some pretty fundamental societal problems which it was never designed to do.

And I’m not alone in holding this view. I recently read a research paper published by the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University which included the following comment:

‘Research on public perceptions of anti-social behaviour in European Countries asked who should be responsible for dealing with anti social behaviour. The public in all countries placed the primary responsibility with parents but only in England and Wales did the public say that after parents, it should be the responsibility of the police and the courts; the other countries placed schools and local communities in second place.

'There are simply now too many minor matters appearing in court that should not be dealt with formally by the criminal system, but rather informally by schools, local authorities and local communities.'

My starting position is that if we are to stop problem and criminal behaviour happening then our focus as a society should be on tackling the complex socio economic causes that underpin that behaviour as well as the symptoms. I am firmly of the view that any foundation that has enforcement as its primary basis is set on sand.

Yes, the Criminal Justice System has a key part to play. Yes we are determined to play our part to the full, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the Criminal Justice System was designed primarily to deal with criminal behaviour and bad people. Its emphasis is on enforcement of the law, penalties for breaches and rehabilitation of offenders. This undoubtedly provides a deterrent. But is it realistic to expect that an enforcement based system is capable of providing solutions to deep rooted problems?

In my view, we need to ask some fundamental questions as to where responsibility for stopping problem and criminal actually behaviour lies.

I’m going to illustrate my position by looking at attitudes towards young people. I think it’s appropriate to do so because, if we are to have a fundamental strategic and cultural shift, then it must start at the earliest possible time.

I attend many community meetings and regularly witness a growing intolerance towards the young. This is more apparent when the meeting age group is older. Indeed, a clear gap seems to be emerging between young people and those over 50 with very little common ground.

There are also some very clear trends at these meetings:

Firstly, there are never any young people present – they are always seen as a problem, but never part of the solution.

Secondly, there is a commonly held view that anti social behaviour caused by young people can be solved by regulating behaviour.

That’s largely because many people view their own children through rose tinted glasses – ‘out of sight out of mind’. They may not know where their children go to or what they get up to, but they instinctively know that they behave well. That contrasts with the view they hold of other peoples children – ‘allowed to go where they want and do as they like – the parents are clearly at fault and something should be done about them and their children’ !

And there is no doubt that we are seeing far more youths wandering the streets looking for something to do than we did even a few years ago and it is this large section of young people that seems more and more to be associated with problem and anti-social behaviour and is in danger of being drawn into the criminal justice system.

I read only last week that up to 63,000 young people take unauthorised absence from school each day and that 1/3 of all absence can be put down to only 7%. That’s 4 ½ thousand hard core truants daily. Many of those fall into the ‘hard to deal with’ category. They are often troublesome and unruly in class with the worst written off as too difficult. We see it in the growing numbers of exclusions from school; children labelled dysfunctional and cast adrift, and the outcome is a continuing spiralling downward. The inevitable landing place brings them into contact with the CJS and by that stage it is often too late to stop and change the dysfunctional behaviour that characterises persistent young offenders.

There are now clear warning signals emanating from the larger cities in England that give rise to enormous concerns about the future of young people living in many of our deprived communities. The divide between affluence and poverty is growing and deprived communities always suffer disproportionately. In many of our larger cities, in areas of extreme deprivation, there are almost feral groups of very angry young people. Many have experienced family breakdown, and in place of parental and family role models, the gang culture is now established. Tribal loyalty has replaced family loyalty and gang culture based on violence and drugs is a way of life. Disaffected young people are also a prime target for terrorist recruiters. Many parts of the country have not seen this problem but media attention, whether intentionally or unintentionally, has a tendency to focus on aspects of gang culture that are attractive to impressionable young people.

Any strategy that looks to the criminal justice system to provide solutions to deep rooted societal problems is flawed. Yes, we can provide communities with short term remedies and short term relief by physically taking prolific offenders into custody. But that remedy is only temporary, as so often seen in local crime figures, were peaks and troughs can be linked to prolific offenders and their periods of incarceration.

But solutions to problem and criminal behaviour centred around enforcement is unsustainable for at least two reasons.

Our spiralling prison population provides one. If only for economic reasons, it is not viable to simply go on building more and more prisons. On the other hand it is equally not viable to pursue remedies based on the release of people deserving to be there in the first place. The consequences of being tough on crime are that its success does create further problems down the line.

It’s also the case that a too single minded enforcement based approach can alienate young people and communities. I remember this only too well from my experiences of the Brixton riots in the early 1980’s. Yes there was a problem which necessitated police action but we tackled the symptoms and in doing so stereotyped and antagonised many young people through ‘sus’ and other tactics and as positions became entrenched riots ensued. Only then, through an inquiry by Lord Scarman did attention turn to factors that gave rise to riots.

So what am I advocating? In my view, the starting point for stopping problem and criminal behaviour is prevention.

The old maxim, ‘prevention is better than cure’ is one of the most overused and under resourced phrases ever coined. It has always been recognised as key doctrine but has slipped down the fashion scale in the era of ‘what gets measured gets done’.

That’s largely because prevention and diversion are very difficult to measure. In an age of cost benefit analysis were funding streams are often short term and linked to success factors, there are few incentives for putting resources into measures the benefits of which will not be seen for years to come. As a result, there is no appetite for solutions that have no visible return and no patience for any which will not bear immediate political fruit.

But there are considerable benefits in strategies based on stopping behaviour. This direction is crucial if we are to manage the ever increasing demand that is putting enormous pressures on public services with no hope of increased resources and faced with having to cut services. Stopping behaviour provides a real alternative because it can reduce levels of demand.

The cause of much of that demand lies in deep seated socio-economic factors and our greatest opportunity to satisfy it lies in a multi agency response that includes the community, which is aimed at stopping the problem behaviour before it results in the need for our services. This is becoming more and more viable as the public sector is slowly unshackled from the silo constraints that led to an inward facing perspective.

Earlier this year the Welsh Assembly Government set up a task force to reduce the number of attacks on accident and emergency staff. Initially the police were not included because it was seen solely in terms of the A & E physical environment. I wrote to the Minister and highlighted that a wider partnership approach targeting preventative measures at alcohol and drug misuse so as to reduce the number of problem people attending Accident and Emergency Units would be a very effective strategy.

Let me give you an example of how we reduced reactive demand through a simple preventative measure. The Home Office has costed each violent crime incident at an average of £130,000. Jonathon Shepherd, Professor of Maxifacial Surgery at the University Hospital of Wales, began a campaign during the 1990’s to draw attention to injuries caused by glass and the link with alcohol related behaviour. He highlighted strong evidence to show that replacing glass bottles and glasses with plastic or polycarbonate products significantly reduced the incidence of serious injuries arising from assaults. We initially undertook a pilot over a four week period one Christmas in Swansea city centre. It resulted in 78 fewer glassings, an 18% reduction in assaults on staff at Morrsiton Hospital and an estimated savings amounted to £9 million. It provided a graphic illustration of the clear preventative benefits that could be achieved in terms of serious injury and cost savings in terms of reduced demand on ambulance, casualty, theatre, hospital beds, hospital waiting times , trauma services, psychiatric services and so on. The idea has now helped you to achieve targets.

I firmly believe that a multi agency holistic approach, incorporating education and prevention, can reduce pressures on A & E services thereby enabling the staff to focus on improving quality and standards of service because they will have more time to do so. Through reducing demand, freed up money could also be utilised in other preventative measures crying out for more investment.
Turning back to young people, I’m going to briefly illustrate what I believe is wrong with some of the national direction being given.

Anti social behaviour can take many forms. At one extreme it involves loutish, thuggish behaviour, vandalism and an intent to cause harm and misery. This extreme behaviour disrupts whole communities and must be tackled head on. But anti-social behaviour can also refer to youths who wear hooded jackets or baseball caps and who congregate on or wander along streets on a regular basis. Their intent is not to cause mischief, but their presence alone can be intimidating and is enough to worry many residents particularly the elderly and vulnerable.

To some, the solution to the problem lies in use of the big stick - exemplified by the ASBO. It’s a one size fits all solution and success is easy to gauge – you just count up the number of ASBO’s. But the ASBO' isn’t a panacea. . The British Institute for Brain Injured Children can show you a file this thick, where children suffering from autism have been referred for an ASBO.

When giving oral evidence before a Welsh Affairs Select Committee back in 2004, I was initially challenged quite strongly by a number of MP's of failing communities by the lack of ASBO’s in my force area. In response, the point I made equally forcefully was that success in tackling anti social behaviour should be judged in terms of stopping and eradicating the problem. That’s what communities actually want. To them numbers of ASBO's count for nothing, particularly if they are repeatedly breached as many are. Recent data shows that 6 out of 10 ASBO’s are breached and in some areas individuals breach their ASBO’s in excess of 5 times.

Tackling anti-social behaviour effectively is about recognising the impact on victims and communities as well as looking at the factors which cause such behaviour and the individuals involved. Most importantly it is about taking early action that recognises the needs of victims and witnesses alongside measures to deal with those accused of being culprits.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Framework we devised in South Wales, now adopted for the whole of Wales, is based on a graduated, problem solving approach. We have 7 Community Safety Partnerships each of which has a dedicated non police anti social behaviour co-ordinator who work closely with their dedicated police equivalents. They maintain a comprehensive common database which keeps a record of complaints and individuals involved. If a crime is committed it is dealt with as a crime, not as anti social behaviour, but it is also entered in the asb process.

Following a complaint, the police and community safety co-ordinators gather information on the problem and the alleged offender and look for the most appropriate response. Usually, the first stage involves a written warning that the behaviour must stop. In the vast majority of cases involving young people, we have found that this is the first occasion that parents have been made aware that their child has been causing a nuisance. Pleasingly, in most cases, they have then taken the appropriate action to resolve the problem – as indeed they should.

Should the first warning not resolve the problem, then the second and third stages will involve visits from the police and members of the partnership and, again, will focus on putting in place interventions that are aimed at solving the problem.

Last year we issued 6076, stage one letters. This is the first level of intervention. In the cases of young people, its when we ensure their parents or guardians are made aware of behaviour and it provides them with the opportunity to take remedial action.

And the majority of parents do, as the statistics show. From that initial 6076 only

  • 1,104 stage two letters and visits were required and this intervention again paid off because only 112 stage 3 visits were needed.
  • In only 82 cases was an ASBO required.

Those figures clearly evidence the attrition rate through early intervention and the benefits of confronting the problem and looking for solutions. I should add that the framework is very flexible and allows for stages to be missed out where circumstances warrant. In extreme cases, we could apply for an ASBO at the outset.

If further problems do occur then we have available to us a wide range of powers under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 which are aimed at preventing anti-social behaviour and we ensure that they are utilised to the full.

Our emphasis on stopping the behaviour is based on a proportionate approach to the problem. In many cases we are able to resolve issues without resource to the law through good old fashioned policing. Our preferred option is to keep young people out of the CJS and to avoid giving them a criminal record. In some cases where criminal behaviour is evident that isn’t appropriate but through early intervention we find that we can redirect youngsters away from the slippery path.

Unfortunately, that’s getting harder to do because, contrary to logic and common sense, some national strategic direction has actually been driven by performance indicators.

For example, national performance indicators that base success on numbers of sanction detections have actually had the effect of bringing more people into the criminal justice system for the wrong reasons. We were being directed down this course by a performance measurement regime which did not aim to prevent behaviour but was more concerned with illustrating success in a very unsophisticated way. Only last week the Youth Justice Board released statistics which showed an increase in crime committed by young people compared with three years ago. They attributed part of the increase to police targets.

It happened because the discretion police officers have traditionally had to deal with minor offences has been eroded. An officer faced with a young person, a first offender, stopped by a storekeeper for stealing sweets once had the option, in agreement with the shop owner, of taking that individual home and dealing with him there informally with the parents. Unfortunately, because that arrest was linked to a sanction detection, the requirement to count numbers as an indicator of success encouraged a formal procedural course that directed the individual straight into the Criminal Justice System.

The reality is that in recent years, lower order offences have made up a greater and growing percentage of detections and, as minor offences are disproportionately committed by the young, so the number of young offenders being formally brought to justice has increased.

Whilst national direction has changed recently, the requirement to count numbers as an indicator of success still remains. It is something we must be very wary of because If we continue in this vein then the longer term consequence will be a generation with a far greater proportion of people who have been ‘criminalised’ which, in turn, may have an adverse range of social and economic implications.

If we are to have communities which are secure and stable and feel secure and stable then young people have to be properly engaged and those who are marginalized and are at most risk of offending and causing anti social behaviour need to become part of the solution.

It is estimated that every year 70,000 school age offenders enter the youth justice system and that youth crime costs the UK around £1 billion a year. This alone, I would argue, makes a case for greater social investment in prevention and diversion – investing to save.

And my own force South Wales Police is doing just that. We are the only UK Police force to be a franchised partner of the Princes Trust Volunteers. Research by the Princes Trust has highlighted the links between factors of deprivation and anti social and criminal behaviour. For example, young offenders are more likely to be unemployed than their peers and as a result are more likely to re-offend; there is a also strong relationship between educational underachievement and crime. Young people in custody are 13 times as likely to be unemployed, 10 times as likely to have been a regular truant.

The Princes Trust has also shown that investment in rehabilitation does produce dividends. Within South Wales we have found a 60% non offending rate and that up to 70% of unemployed young people went on to jobs training or education.

So what then am I calling for ? I believe we need to see more effort directed at keeping young people out of the Criminal Justice through greater investment in measures that prevent and divert young people away from criminal and anti social behaviour.

In my view we need a series of approaches.

The first involves the majority of young people. Those who would not normally come into contact with the police but who are becoming more and more at risk because of the growing tendency for young people to aimlessly wander around. They put many people in fear and those people in turn contact the police often demanding that action be taken.

In doing so we also need to be mindful of the fact that many young people lack the inclination to look for things to do. They are used to having things done for them and packaged in a way that is easy to use and is appealing.

It’s evident in the almost universal complaint of ‘Nothing to do, nowhere to go.’ Now that’s often a perception they hold because , in most areas, there are many groups who work hard to provide facilities for young people. But ‘nothing to do, nowhere to go’ is a perception that needs to be addressed because it is a root cause of both anti social and criminal behaviour which creates demand for the police and wider Criminal Justice System.

To this end, back in 2005, I met with the late Peter Clarke, the former Children's Commissioner for Wales. We both recognised the enormous amount of excellent work being undertaken by statutory and voluntary groups working with young people right across Wales. We also shared a concern that more could be achieved through better co-ordination and integration of the diverse range of activity.

We therefore worked with a range of partners to develop a model to help agencies to see the bigger picture within their areas in order to better meet the needs of young people and develop a better joined up approach to the delivery of front-line help and support to young persons.

It resulted in a multi-agency youth at risk prevention model which we published under the title ‘So to Do’, short for ‘Someone to Listen – Something to Do’. It is a very useful model because it has the potential to provide a range of benefits, such as reduction of anti social behaviour, the development of positive things for young people to do, better co-ordination of specialist services, improvement to the physical environment and the provision of opportunities for economic regeneration. It’s targeted at young people at risk from being drawn into anti social or criminal behaviour.

It operates at four levels:

  • Tier 1- involves work, support and assistance for school age children after school hours- things like social support and self discipline techniques for school and personal lives, parenting and family support etc
  • Tier 2-involves working on an outreach basis to reach excluded and marginalised children and young people with a view to developing an individual support plan – for example outreach workers making contact with marginalised young people, access to leisure activities and support of a mentor etc
  • Tier 3 – involves the provision of vocational training which ties in closely with the youth employment services and colleges and meets the needs of local employers and local commit for example, vocational training, community improvement work
  • Tier 4 – involves access to individual services as required for example substance misuse, child protection youth offending

The aim is to engage with young people and divert them into activities which are attractive and positive.

I strongly believe that changing culture and behavioural attitudes is a good base line for improving the life chances of many young people as well as keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

The second level, involves those already in the CJS - much is already being done within the resources we have available. For example, the South Wales Local Criminal Justice Board which I chair, is currently pursuing via joint initiatives with Community Safety Partnerships and Youth Offending Teams ensuring, nay demanding, a range of initiatives designed to divert young people from criminality and entry into the criminal justice system. These diversionary initiatives significantly influence our core programme and will greatly assist in the local delivery of crime strategies, community engagement and closer relationships with Community Safety Partnerships as part of the Boards priority. A weakness is that many schemes are short term which exacerbates the vulnerability of many young offenders to peer pressure from individuals only too ready to involve them in activities that will lead them into trouble. There is a real need for more long term intervention and emphasis on transforming culture through education with an emphasis on giving young offenders a better chance of gaining employment and real opportunities to transform their life chances.

The third level is for me the crucial one. It involves those young people who exhibit dysfunctional signs at a very early age. School teachers are particularly well placed and readily recognise individuals whose disruptive behaviour is such that it signifies the likelihood that if left unchecked he or she is destined for involvement with the CJS.

I am involved in a partnership project with a School in one of the most deprived areas of Swansea which is looking at identifying the best means of managing individuals who, for family or other social reasons, can be categorised as acute and complex cases and who are at risk of exclusion. We are developing a multi agency team around the needs of these children with a view to putting in place the sustained support to assist them becoming positive member of society. The intention is to support them and their families to avoid contact with the CJs and to help them to achieve their potential. That involves some very complex multi agency work, but already signs are encouraging and there has been a significant improvement in levels of information sharing which in turn has allowed us to focus on individuals with drug and substance abuse problems.

The final element concerns the very hard to reach group, those individuals who have already been written off by many and whose opportunities for life change are undermined by poor education, substance misuse and a criminal record. They are people who have often been given chances and who have failed to respond to short term attempts to help them. These are extremely challenging individuals and currently there is very little that fits their needs. Any success is dependent on cultural change that reverses the peer pressure that their disfunctionality responds to. But we do need to accept the challenge because this is a large and growing group and includes the feeder elements of organised crime and gang groups.

I am engaged with the Church in Wales looking at this type of person. We are seeking to develop a project that would, on a voluntary basis, take individuals away from their environment and the negative peer pressures, into a residential programme that would provide intensive support over a fairly long term with a view to transforming culture, assisting life chances through acquisition of skills and turn them into positive role models. This project however, falls into the high cost category and its development is dependent on obtaining funding that would allow us to develop a pilot the success of which could be evaluated. I do however, firmly believe that intervention of this type is urgently needed.

In summary, I believe that those parts of the Criminal Justice System that can, need to focus on reducing the causes of crime and the number of first time entrants into the Criminal Justice System. Every performance indicator needs to be holistic with the twin aims of measuring performance which take account of diversion and engaging victims. For that to happen we need to move away from the modern trend of short term targets as the measurement of success and refocus on stopping behaviour through strategies that address the causes as well as the effects of behaviour.

I’ve not talked about the social responsibility of the individual quite deliberately because that deserves its own space as a topic. However, I do believe that if the CJS is to be effective it needs to be able to concentrate on what it was set up to do. In doing so it needs therefore to challenge, through Local Criminal Justice Boards and Community Safety Partnerships, the contribution others outside of the Criminal Justice System are making to stopping problem behaviour.

Thank you, I’ll stop at this point and take questions.