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Persistent Offenders

Thames Valley Seminar on Persistent Offenders

11 February 2003

Sometimes when one goes to a meeting, it is to a set agenda and everything has been mapped out in advance.

Today is not like that.  Today we can set out the problem – variously described as persistent or prolific offenders – but the solution is unknown and our task is to work it out.

Prolific offenders have shot to the top of the Home Office agenda over about three years.  They are now common currency between agencies, but that has not always been the case.

For years the common view was that many people committed crime, few were detected, and even fewer convicted or sentenced.  The criminal justice system was portrayed as nibbling in a futile way at the tip of some enormous iceberg.  The whole attrition debate was dominated by this gloomy view that Criminal Justice agencies could never have much effect upon the great underlying mass of crime.

This is, of course, entirely the wrong way to look at it.  It is correct that if you look at the total number of offences committed, we detect a relatively small proportion and charge fewer. That will always be the case if you look at offences.

But looked at from the position of offenders, the view is very different.  Anyone who had dealt with offenders – like the prison and probation services for instance – knows that it is the devil’s own job to keep them out of the courts.  They collect convictions like the rest of the world collects air miles.  A gap of as much as a year between convictions can be a matter of some rejoicing.

What is happening is, of course, that a relatively small group of people, perhaps 2% of the general population, or around 4% of males, are committing the vast bulk of offences.  These people are repeatedly before the courts, not for every single offence they commit, but for as many as can be reasonably ascribed to them at that time, and then they go round again.

Under this view, now regarded as orthodox by the Home Office, England and Wales has about £1.25m active offenders and a mere 100,000 offenders are responsible for around 50% of all crime.

That should transform our view of the Criminal Justice System.  At any one time the National Probation Service has around 100,000 offenders on its books and about 250,000 pass through its hands in a year.

The prison service has about 70,000 prisoners and around that number pass through its gates in a year.

This must mean that, over a period of between one and two years, the various Criminal Justice agencies are handling, not the tip of some iceberg but the vast majority of all active offenders. Suddenly an impossible task – managing the country’s offenders – becomes manageable.

This should be a real spur to get it right.  If we get right the handling of offenders, particularly those who are committing the offences which cause us most grief, we stand a real chance of being able to manage crime down.

You will have noticed that I said those who are causing us the most grief.  I didn’t speak simply of numbers, or rate of offending because I suspect all of us would want to take some account of seriousness.

We are meeting here today because new opportunities have arisen.  First, as I have described, there is a new climate over the real gain to be had from handling prolific offenders properly. Secondly, we are at last beginning to make real progress in joining up the Criminal Justice System on the ground.

In the Thames Valley area a great boost has been given to this process by the street crime initiative and one could point to much closer working between the police and Crown Prosecution Service and now the National Probation Service as a result.  I could take other examples.

But hitherto, we have tended to leave the Prison Service out of the loop. I suspect that, for many, the Prison Service has been a bit of a blind spot.  That is part of how we look at imprisonment in this country.  We “put people away” and forget or at least conveniently ignore, the fact that, in round figures, people come out of prison at much the same rate as they go in.

This is why we should welcome the emphasis which the Prison Service is now giving to resettlement and establishing better links with the rest of the Criminal Justice System – for instance, ensuring that those who had received drug treatment in prison were linked up to rehab facilities in the community would be a good start.

A real live example of the relevance of this is in Reading.  As the result of the street crime initiative, a number of target offenders are now in custody and street crime has fallen. It won’t be that long before they begin to come out.  We need to consider how we ought to respond to that.

Another, very different, example can be seen across Surrey, Kent and, soon possibly, Thames Valley.  In these areas crime and disorder partnerships are giving increasing attention to problem families – families who are causing concern across a range of agencies, like education, police, probation, Youth Offending Teams, Drug Action Teams, housing, social services and health.

These agencies find that the same families causes significant work for each of them and sharing a common agenda makes a lot of sense, greatly promotes co-operation and makes a big difference in acting effectively.

Which brings me to today’s business.  In Thames Valley the police have – sensibly in my view – concluded that the mechanistic definition of a prolific offender isn’t operationally optimal, so are working out their own.

By the same token, I am sure that each Criminal Justice agency could define their own priority cases and list the handful of offenders which cause them greatest concern.  But, however it is done, I would not be in the least surprised to find that there was considerable overlap between agencies on this.

So one of the first things we could work on is how to share information on these priority offenders, how we know when we are doing business with someone who is a high priority for another agency and what follows from this.  There are technical and practical issues here.

And perhaps most of all, we need to begin to work out a method of interfacing with the Prison Service when a key offender goes into custody and comes out again at the end, and how we best manage that.

I have no doubt that one of the secrets of success in all this is proper prioritisation.  If we don’t have enough priority cases in the frame, we won’t get the biggest impact. If we have too many, the whole thing will become unmanageable.

The trick must be to ensure that each agency is confident that its priority offenders – however defined – are being properly recognised by its partner agencies.  At the very least, that they are not simply being lost in the system.

The promising bit is that the prize – in terms of the effectiveness of all of our agencies as well as public protection – is potentially great.

Address given by Hugh Marriage OBE
Crime Reduction Director, Government Office for the South East