Crime is down, and that’s something we should celebrate.
All the indicators… whether police recorded crime, the activity in the courts, or the British Crime Survey’s reports of victims’ experience of crime…they all show things moving in the right direction.
But as Justice Secretary, in charge of prisons, probation and the public money spent on them, I am confronted with a very difficult truth.
Reoffending rates haven’t changed. The last government threw a lot of money at the system generally, but there is hard core of persistent offenders keep coming back to serve time in our prisons over and over again.
This means we have a smaller group of more prolific offenders.
That’s bad for society, it’s dreadful for the victims of crime, and it’s something I’m determined to tackle.
Someone once made the ‘causes of crime’ into a soundbite. We should be clear that the causes of crime are the choices made by the criminals who commit them, and there is no excuse for those who break the law. But that is not to say we should be blind to the context of crime – the often difficult, chaotic and in fact tragic backgrounds of those passing through our criminal justice system time and time again.
To understand this is not to excuse criminal behaviour, nor to put the needs of the criminal above the suffering of the victim. There are many people who face big challenges in life and never commit a crime.
But without a proper analysis of the common threads that run through the lives of offenders in Britain today, we have no hope of either helping them get their lives back on track, or stopping them coming off the rails in the first place.
It is this context of crime that I want to talk about today.
First, we have to understand who the offenders are… who are those serving sentences in our communities and in our prisons.
I want to look at the factors that have influenced their behaviour – and how those factors impact on the chances that they will reoffend too.
And finally, I want to look at what this means for how we best tackle their behaviour, to try and end their careers of crime once and for all.
Back in 2002, around 20 percent of those convicted of indictable offences had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions to their name. A decade later, that’s shot up to 34%, while the proportion of first time entrants has stayed the same – it’s actually come down a little (11.2%-9.8%).
What that means is that crime is increasingly being committed by fewer people, going round and round the system more and more.
In short, Britain’s problem is less about offending, and more about reoffending.
Who is committing crime?
Look into the statistics and you’ll find patterns emerging about the characteristics and the backgrounds of those committing crime.
Today we’re publishing the results of a study that looked at the more serious offenders – who started community orders between October 2009 and December 2010 [the Offender Management Community Cohort Study].
Some of the findings you could predict. Others are quite shocking. But all bear close scrutiny.
So when the judge hands down a community sentence, who is it that’s facing them in the dock?
He - it’s overwhelmingly likely that they’ll be male (84%), and a little younger than average (31 v 39 average in England).
For offenders covered by today’s survey, it’s also highly probable he’ll be out of work. Just a quarter have a job in the week before the survey.
There’s every possibility that he won’t be in good health. He will be slightly more likely than not to have a long-term medical condition (51%) and nearly one in three will have a mental health condition.
There’s some chance that he’ll have no fixed base. A significant proportion – over a third – will be experiencing problems finding a permanent home and over one in ten will have no fixed abode.
Nearly a third (29%) will describe themselves as having financial difficulties.
Already, at that quick glance, there are some common threads we’ll see with offenders across the board: mental health problems; worklessness; no fixed and stable anchor of a home life.
Custodial sentences (adult)
That reflects what we already know about those serving custodial sentences.
Again, if you’re a prisoner in this country, you’re highly likely to be male (95%). You may well have a chequered work history. Indeed, you might be one of the 13% of prisoners who claims never to have had a job in their lives.
And again, there’s a decent chance you’ll be struggling with a place to stay. Around one in seven (15%) describe themselves as homeless, and over one in three (37%) say that they will need help finding a place to live when they’re released.
The chances are you’re single. As a prisoner, you are highly unlikely to be married – fewer than one in ten are (just 8%). Only a quarter reported that they were living with a partner when they went into prison.
And there’s a strong chance that drugs are a part of your life. Nearly two thirds will have used drugs in the month before entering prison, and just over half (55%) will have a serious drug problem.
Young offenders sentenced to custody
Looking to the younger generation of offenders, we can see the patterns emerging that will later solidify in the adult prison population. There are fewer young people entering the criminal justice system, but those that do will be regular visitors to our courts in the years ahead.
Overwhelmingly, young offenders in custody are likely to be male (95%). Black and minority ethnic groups make up about a third (34%) of the youth custody population – a higher proportion than in adult jails.
If you look at their educational profile, skills and academic abilities, there’s a clear disparity between them and the population as a whole.
They are something like ten times more likely to have learning disabilities (23-32% v 2-4%).
A high proportion of them – maybe more than half – will have dyslexia (43-57%). That compares with just 10 percent in the population as a whole.
Astonishingly, it’s far more likely than not that if you’re a young person in custody you will have experienced a traumatic brain injury. Somewhere between 65 and 70% [65.1-72.1%].
It’s unsurprising that, on the whole, their educational attainment is so bad.
Around half of 15 to 17 years olds entering custody had the literacy or numeracy levels you would expect of children in the last years of primary school.
All of which is a reminder that the problems faced by young offenders – and then those who go on to offend as adults – are ones that have their seeds sown early on.
Where they’ve come from
What seems overwhelmingly clear from all studies is that criminality is not something that descends overnight on people. It’s something that has its roots in where they’ve had their start in life: family breakdown, abusive relationships, and instability.
Despite this, many prisoners say they have strong family ties. That’s a double-edged sword: strong, supportive families can be a very positive influence.
But when offenders return to the same streets, the same associations that led them to commit crime in the first place, those links can be destructive.
It may not be the norm that prisoners’ families were engaged in criminal activity per se – but it’s an influencing factor for many.
It seems to be the case for over a third (37%) of prisoners. Usually the family member who has committed a crime will be a male relative: for most (56%) it’s a brother or step-brother.
And if you’re a prisoner with a family member who does have a criminal record, you’re more likely to reoffend on release (59% v 48%).
Beyond simple criminality, the sorts of homes that prisoners may have come from are vital to understanding where they’ve come from and where they may be headed.
Around half of those getting prison sentences, and of those getting community sentences covered by today’s study, will have grown up in a household with both their natural parents.
We may be seeing a changing society increasingly reflected when we look at younger offenders.
Looking at the youngest group of adult offenders with community sentences in the study, 18 to 20 year olds, just under four in every six (38%) grew up in households with both parents.
But for our average young offender, it’s far more likely than not (75%) that he will have grown up in a household with an absent parent.
Dig deeper and the background to his life makes for a disturbing picture. It’s probable (51%) that he’s deemed to have come from unsuitable accommodation, and a fair possibility (39%) that at some point he’ll have been on the child protection register or have experienced abuse or neglect.
Tragically, abuse and violence form the backdrop to the lives of many of the people in our prisons.
A large proportion – something like four in ten (41%) – of adults in prison will have seen violence in the home firsthand when they were young. Nearly a third would have been abused themselves.
And where they have experienced or observed abuse in the home the figures show that they are more likely to reoffend on release (58% vs 50% [experienced] and 58% v 48% [observed]).
Yet one of the most shocking figures I have encountered is the proportion of offenders who have been through the care system. About a quarter (24%) of adult prisoners were taken into care as a child.
For 15 to 17 year olds in custody that goes up to about one in every three [30% of young men, and 44% of young women].
And what’s more, those adults in prison who had been in care were quite significantly more likely to reoffend on their release (61% v 49%). I find those statistics incredible, and for me they just cement the link between a solid family background and a life away from crime.
Of course, there are broader risk factors – environmental and psychological – that show the challenges we face if we’re to prevent young people turning to crime: hyperactivity, the bad influence of those in their peer group, and dysfunctional communities are all part of a picture which puts children at risk of turning to crime.
There’s one more crucial area of risk that shows a link with future offending: education.
Under-achievement, suspension and exclusion: that’s the standard school report of a young man entering the youth estate.
Nearly nine in every ten (88%) of young men aged 15 to 17 entering custody had been excluded from school at some point. A substantial majority will have skipped school (72% of young men; 84% of young women).
We’ve already seen that literacy and numeracy is woefully low among young offenders and of course this trend of underachievement is common to the adult prison population as well.
Hardly surprising that nearly half (47%) of adult prisoners said they had no qualifications, and that worklessness is such a prevalent theme in offenders’ lives.
There’s another thing that offenders will have in common in their backgrounds: there is a strong chance they will have committed crimes before.
The slide into criminality starts young. For the average adult prisoner, his first arrest came at 15…his first conviction or caution came at 16… and he got his first experience of prison life when he was 18.
These may have been his first experiences of the criminal justice system. Sadly, they won’t be his last.
Of those convicted for indictable offences in 2012 over a third (34%) had fifteen or more previous cautions or convictions. This is our hardcore of reoffenders. As you’d expect, nine in every 10 of this group are men. Most of their latest offences (51%) were theft or handling stolen goods.
Quite rightly, given their habit of reoffending a decent proportion (39%) will get a prison sentence. If you are serving time in prison, on average you will have committed an astonishing 41 previous offences.
How we respond
So how do we deal with this profound and deep rooted challenge?
The answer is a jigsaw puzzle of different solutions, in early intervention, improved education, work with troubled families, programmes to tackle endemic worklessness and benefit dependency, improved public health and much more.
As a Government we are focusing efforts across that challenge – and so are countless voluntary sector and other projects seeking to help tackle the issues we face. Our troubled families initiative, and efforts to strengthen early years provision in nurseries and Sure Start centres are part of that. So are efforts like Labour MP Graham Allen’s Early Intervention Foundation.
Then there’s education. Of course, low education achievement by itself might not be the root cause of offending – there may be underlying reasons behind both. But our education system needs to be one that drives up participation, aspiration, attendance and attainment.
The Government is providing over £1.8 billion in 2013-14 through the Pupil Premium so schools can support disadvantaged pupils, including those most at risk of offending. From April this year we’ve given Pupil Referral Units control of own budgets, so they can best respond to the needs of young people.
Our welfare reforms aren’t simply about saving money. They are also about saving lives, by creating a system where all the incentives and support are around getting people back into the workplace, so we no longer sit at the top of the European league table for the number of children growing up in workless households.
By the time people reach my Department, the challenges are rather different though. The days for early intervention are past. But the job to be done is no less important.
Education with detention
Firstly, education. We’ve seen how fragmented young offenders’ educational histories are. That’s why I’m convinced that education must be put at the heart of our approach to youth custody.
We’ve consulted recently on the future of the youth custodial estate in England and Wales, and I’ve been clear from the start that we need to aim for a system of education in a period of detention – not incarceration with education tagged on as an afterthought.
It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. A period in detention actually gives us the chance to get a grip on patterns of failure and exclusion that have blighted these young lives.
When I’ve met young people in custody what they’ve told me is that they’re keen to take part in courses that they know are going to get them out of the cycle of reoffending.
They know that this is their chance to pick up a skill, to get the education that will help them to get on and become employable on the outside.
Given what we know about the emotional and psychological make-up of these young people, we need an estate made up of establishments where they are kept safe and which inspire a culture of learning.
I saw a good example at Warren Hill Young Offenders’ Institution in Suffolk. The Raptor Project there has groups of young people looking after flying display birds – it’s education, but not in a traditional setting.
They’re getting the hard literacy and numeracy skills that might have evaded them at school, weighing birds and working out how much to feed them. They’re improving their communication abilities by co-operating; and they’re growing in their self-confidence, looking after something other than themselves and taking responsibility for once.
Some of the young people there have gone on to employment working with animals. That is a testament to the skills they’ve picked up on the project, but it also highlights another of its real strengths: the connections they make with the community on the outside.
Above all, what matters is equipping these young people with the self-discipline and ambition to learn that will set them on a new path in life, away from crime.
The adult prison regime
We’ve also seen that unemployment is a persistent problem and one that contributes to the vicious circle of offending.
This was one of the reasons Jeremy Wright and I announced a rethink of the Incentives and Earned Privileges regime in our prisons, including the working day for prisoners.
One of several problems I had with the system of incentives in prison was that it was a wasted opportunity. It rewarded offenders for simply abiding by the rules and keeping out of trouble.
In future, prisoners will have to work towards their own rehabilitation to get privileges. They’ll be expected to take part in courses to plug the gaps in their skills and to make up for the lost time when they were skipping school.
If they don’t engage in that, then they won’t get the same privileges as those who do.
Work is a central pillar of this. Last year prisoners worked 11.4 million hours in our prisons. Every day we’ve got around 9,000 prisoners employed in industrial work doing a whole range of activity. Some leading prisons are already achieving regular working weeks of 30 to 40 hours.
That’s a good start, but it is just a start. There’s more that can be done, getting prisoners used to something a significant proportion of them weren’t experiencing on the outside: the discipline and routine of work.
When you ask them, the majority (68%) of prisoners say that having a job would be important in stopping them reoffending, and the stats bear this out. We know getting a job after release reduces the chances of reoffending by some margin [9.4% 1-year reoffending rate for those serving under 12 months]. That’s also why since last year we’ve been getting those released from prison onto the Work Programme right away, on Day One.
So custody can help to get offenders the skills and employment that they have otherwise missed in life.
But that leaves something else – a solid home life. Not just a family, not just a permanent place to stay, although those things are important and they have to feature in our response.
More broadly, it’s about getting offenders proper support when they leave the prison gates, getting them the basic life management skills they need, so we can class them as ex-offenders and keep it that way. And that’s at the heart of our plans to transform the way rehabilitation is delivered.
There are a number of different strands to this. We’re putting in place a new ‘through the gate’ service across the country. That means most offenders will get continuous support – starting in prison and carrying on with the same providers when they leave – with the basics you and I might take for granted but which, offenders most need help with. Things like housing and healthcare.
We’ve seen how the majority of those going into prison have a drug problem, but at the moment too many prisoners serving short sentences can’t get access to recovery programmes. It is no wonder so many are slipping back into a life of crime.
That’s why my Department are linking up with Health to trial a new approach to drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Up to 5,000 offenders a year released from prisons in Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Lancashire will get support for their addictions, in custody and on their release.
That continuity of care is important. Under our plans, there’ll be new resettlement prisons so offenders are released into the place where they’re going to live, to build a sense of continuity.
But even that by itself won’t fix every problem. We saw the depressing backdrop to the lives of those who are in prison – the unstable family life, the abuse and violence, the mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems.
Who is there to make sure those underlying difficulties don’t push someone leaving prison back into chaos, back into crime?
Supervision till now has been reserved for those who served prison sentences of a year or more. That simply doesn’t make sense when it’s those serving short sentences of under 12 months that are most at risk of offending.
To pay for this extension, we’re opening up the market to rehabilitation providers in the voluntary and private sectors so they can innovate and deliver what works. And they will be paid on the basis of what works.
Today we’re publishing the interim figures from the pilot undertaken in Peterborough, which tested a through-the-gate, payment by results approach for those serving prison sentences of under 12 months. Just what we’re proposing under our reforms.
It’s too early to make a definitive assessment. But the headline my statisticians are telling me is that the Peterborough early figures are promising. They suggest that the reconviction rate for Peterborough is coming down, while the national rate is actually going up.
So those are positive signs, and we await the full results next year with interest.
Now, it’s not for me, sitting in Whitehall, to tell the local voluntary group how to get results – that’s for them. They have the expertise, and ultimately – under Payment by Results – it will be down to them to deliver what works.
But I do believe mentoring will feature heavily in turning ex-offenders’ lives around. And for me, it will be the ex offender gone straight who can best get under the skin of the person looking to move on from a life of crime.
He will have faced the same challenges. He might well have come from the same sort of background. He knows the dysfunction passed down from generation to generation like an heirloom, and knows that the circle is a hard one to break. He knows the complexities; he knows it’s a hard hill to climb.
I’ve never pretended there’s a simple solution to the complex and – in some cases – hardwired difficulties that offenders face.
But our response must be one that takes into account the themes we’ve seen running through their lives: poor health, drug addiction, homelessness, underachievement at school and unemployment.
There’s an economic argument for doing all this. Reoffending costs the UK somewhere between nine and 13 billion pounds a year. The taxpayer has so far got a poor return for the money invested in rehabilitation, which is why we need a new way of approaching the problem.
But there’s a broader reason why more-of-the-same isn’t an option. It’s the duty we have to society, the families looking to work hard and live honestly whose lives are ruined by crime.
Because when it’s you who’s the victim, it’s no comfort to be told that crime rates are coming down.
And when you find out that the person who burgled you, the person who attacked you in the street, has already been round the system scores of times, you’re entitled to ask why the system didn’t do more to prevent you getting hurt, as others had before you.
My belief is that by understanding the context of the choices that an offender makes, we can understand far better how to get them on to a better path, and get more and more offenders off the depressing merry go round of crime.
That’s precisely what I hope we can achieve with our reforms.