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The Birth of Post-Cynical Criminology

University of Portsmouth
British Society of Criminology Annual Conference
6 July 2004

Once we abandoned “nothing works”,
crime started coming down.
What a surprise!

Today is a first. This is the first time that the BSC has held its annual conference in the South East. So it is a special pleasure for me, as the Home Office Director for this region, to welcome you all here.

The South East is the biggest of the English regions, with around 8.5m people – considerably larger than London, which has around 7m. Indeed, it is a big slice of the UK, with 74 local authorities over five police force areas. If it were a European country, it would rank slightly larger than Austria and slightly smaller than Belgium, with similar GVA, number of universities and per capita wealth. It contributes around 17% of the UK’s GVA and, I understand, around 30% of the UK’s income tax. In short, it is a powerhouse of the UK economy and one which, if the UK economy is to prosper, must not falter.

That is why it is so important that crime should be low in this part of the UK. The South East does not have huge natural resources of coal, oil or even diamonds. It is a region which earns its living nationally and internationally from the knowledge economy.

A knowledge economy can, in theory, thrive anywhere. But it does best in a good quality place to live, with a good environment, good schools and healthcare and – wait for it – low crime. The South East has stresses on some of these factors: congestion threatens aspects of the environment. Staffing shortages, generated mainly by high housing costs, threaten the quality of our schools and health service.

But on crime we are not doing that badly. In terms of per capita recorded crime, the South East used to be higher than the East and the South West. In 2002, we edged below the South West and in 2003 we edged below the East to become the safest part of the UK because we had at the same time slipped below Northern Ireland. In a fortnight’s time I will know whether we have successfully held that position through 2003/04.

I say “not that badly” because I don’t think it is written in the sky that this region, which holds the much higher-crime area of London in its knuckle, should necessarily be the safest in the UK. We have crime problems which stem from London but, because we are not London, the issues are different. That is why we are developing an academic network of about 40 researchers who are working in this region. I might add that we have a larger similar network of crime analysts.

Returning to the crime levels, I don’t take it for granted that Surrey should be the safest police force area, even though it has held that position for eight years or more. And I acknowledge the difficulties around recorded crime and that there is really not that much difference between the East, South West and South East. It’s just nice to be top of the class as it’s important for our international reputation, our economy and our quality of life that we stay relatively safe.

However, there are some ways in which we do not excel. The picture is not so clearcut from the British Crime Survey (BCS) which records crime by the home of the victim rather than where the crime took place. We are as safe as anywhere in terms of burglaries but, for instance, our cars can be stolen in London, but the BCS counts this as a South East crime.

But the South East does really badly on domestic violence. Since regional data have become available, the BCS has shown that the South East has levels of domestic violence which are (very broadly) double those of London and up to three times those of the North.

The only good news in this is that the level in the South East fell from 296 victims of domestic violence per 10,000 adults in 2001/02 to 177 in 2002/03, which is a statistically significant fall, but only at 5% (I do not yet know the figures for 2003/04). Nobody seems able to tell me why the South East does so badly on domestic violence. It is wholly disgraceful that women should be so much at risk in this most privileged part of the UK.

Domestic violence is at least one area where, over my career, I have seen a significant change in approach. In the ’60s the approach to domestic violence was perhaps epitomised by the words of a senior police officer “you have to remember that not all murders are equally serious: some are just men killing their wives”.

Contrast that with the words of Paul Boateng when he was Deputy Home Secretary: “Home should be a place of safety and domestic violence should be seen as a breach of trust so serious as to be an aggravating factor in how [offenders are] dealt with and in sentencing”.*

Whilst this occasion is something of a first for the BSC in this region, it is also for me something of a last. For I have been in the Home Office – and a BSC member – since the mid-1960s and I retire in the autumn, at least from the Home Office.

I have been in criminology for four decades and, for most of those, criminology seems to me to have been in deep depression. It was OK in the ’60s: we were getting excited about the possibilities of multi-variate analysis although a simple factor analysis used to take a week on the mechanical calculators we had when I started work. Merely rotating a correlation matrix could take a couple of days but – and some of you will recognise what I mean by this – at least we knew what we were doing.

But the end of the ’60s saw things going awry. The Mountbatten Report, in spite of the attempt by Radzinowicz to counteract it, closed down developments in prisons which have taken 30 years to reverse. Criminology became seized by a “nothing works” philosophy which manifested itself perhaps most starkly in, for instance, the Prison Service expressing its main task as “humane containment”. This was a dead end created by a toxic mixture of political pressures and academic timidity. Criminology, in my view, wasn’t good enough to measure what was happening or what could be achieved.

By way of example, I remember one piece of research on long term imprisonment which showed that locking people away for five years or more had no adverse effects – indeed, the only effects which were uncovered was that prisoners, protected from the evils of drink, excess food and the dangers of the motor car, emerge at the end of their sentence leaner and fitter than their counterparts who have been living in the degenerate free world. I remember Donald West remarking that it was wholly offensive to common sense to say that locking people up for long periods had no effect on anybody and might even be good for their health.

At the time, my own work could demonstrate fairly clearly that the new industrial prison at Coldingley and – more controversially – the psychiatric prison at Grendon were significantly lowering the reconviction and reimprisonment rates of those who were passing through them. It was quite a struggle to get anyone interested in these results: nobody could believe them, or regard them as replicable – perhaps because there was no enthusiasm to build more Coldingleys or Grendons.

But there was also a growing climate of disbelief that anything much could be done about crime. Crime was seen as being driven by forces beyond our control. Offenders would inevitably reconvict and come back to prison. We seemed frightened of believing that we could do anything about it.

This is the time of day when one can – probably should – tell stories. I was one of a handful of officials who were responsible for the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Actually, I was also responsible for the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 as well, when David Waddington was Home Secretary. But Kenneth Baker’s 1991 Act is the famous one. It always makes people laugh. It occupies a special place in history as the most rushed, most unnecessary and, in some sense, the most stupid piece of legislation.

It is difficult to see why. This country had had a serious problem with pit bull terriers. There were some horrific attacks, including two when people were nearly savaged to death. Pit bull terriers were a danger. In the space of no more than a couple of months, we had legislation in place, and enacted a registration scheme which involved pit bull terriers and some other breeds of dogs being neutered, muzzled and chipped. The attacks stopped immediately and have remained almost unknown in this country ever since. By contrast, France is putting in place a multi-million Euro 10-year scheme to rid itself of pit bulls and is still suffering attacks.

What’s the matter with us? We have legislation which does exactly what it is meant to do and removes a problem decisively, once and for all. So we ridicule it. Is it that we really long with glee to see initiatives collapse, in the public sector equivalent of watching Formula 1 to see the crashes? Fortunately, there is a distinguished group of researchers which has taken a different view about the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. They have shown it to be one of the better bits of regulatory legislation in this country*.

Over the course of my career, I have spent a lot of time being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was one example of that, tagging must be another.

By now Michael Howard was Home Secretary. He had inherited Douglas Hurd’s Criminal Justice Act 1991 which, in order to introduce a set of politically balanced reforms, had liberalised certain aspects of sentencing whilst making tough provisions for electronic monitoring. But only the so-called liberalising elements had been brought into force. Michael Howard wanted to restore the balance and that meant tagging.

It is no great secret that, Ministers aside, virtually nobody in the Home Office had much enthusiasm for tagging. The research seemed unanimous that it would not work. The probation service loathed it. The Government seemed to be nearing the end of its time and becoming accident-prone. Tagging, everyone said, was bound to be a spectacular fiasco.

I clearly remember my boss coming into my office more or less as soon as we had returned after Christmas break. “The Home Secretary” he said, “has decided to go ahead with tagging”. “Whoops” I said, “some poor soul has got a bit of an uphill struggle. Who has copped it?” “You” came the answer. I was about the only person who hadn’t advised the Home Secretary that tagging was impossible, simply because I hadn’t had anything to do with tagging at all until then.

It was January 1995 and we had to have tagging in place by the summer. There was nobody in the UK who knew how to do it, and no contractors. This was to be the first private-sector community sentence, to match the introduction of the private sector into prisons. We had a scoreboard with the number of times people said that we had been passed a poisoned chalice. I had letters from well-known academics telling me it could not possibly work, that it was wrong is practice to “set offenders up to fail” and one person even said that I had “gone native” by espousing a Ministerial initiative (that is, of course, what civil servants are paid for). The media were all set for the big disaster. Cynicism had struck again in epidemic proportions: nobody could believe that tagging could possibly work.

The rest is history and I am delighted that there is a session on tagging in this conference tomorrow. But I doubt if there will be much recognition of how badly wrong all those early dire predictions were – nor any learning to make sure we don’t suffer a similar negatively-depressive attack again.

As to the question of whether our work was evidence-based, well, I don’t want to shoot the fox, particularly as I may be the fox myself, but one answer is that I knew the dismal research results and these spurred me to invent something completely new for this country. In my view, tagging works here because it has created a firm and easily-understandable enforcement system. We aren’t setting offenders up to fail: we are setting out clear rules. Offenders quickly learn that they either go along with it or go to gaol.

As a result tagging is arguably one of the most profound, but largely ignored, reforms of the criminal justice system for many years. It hardly features in official statistics.  Although we have had tagging for around 10 years, some people still can’t grasp that it works, or see the central role it is playing in the criminal justice system.

But the extent of the deep damage which cynicism can cause is probably shown best in the attrition debate which for some time drove the whole criminal justice system into the sand.

Most people here will know the argument. It starts off with the finding that, of every 100 offences committed, 50 get reported. It ends up with the result than one, or sometimes two, offences lead to a conviction and sentence. The mischief lies, not in the fact that that is inaccurate: indeed, it’s perfectly true. The mischief lies in the conclusion that this demonstrates that the criminal justice system is useless, nibbling at the tip of some iceberg of crime and impotent to do much about it. That is simply wrongheaded.

The nonsense can be seen from the other end of the telescope. If you have worked, as I have, to keep offenders out of prison, you face the devil’s own job to stop your offenders reconvicting. When I was in Wandsworth, the half-life of its population – the time it took for 50% of Wandsworth’s prisoners to return to prison – was just 9 months. How come that, if we had such a hopeless criminal justice system, punishing such a trivial slither of offences, we couldn’t keep our prisoners out of trouble?

The light, of course, dawns. We should never have been analysing the criminal justice system in terms of offences. There are always going to be lots of undetected offences, many of them fairly trivial. The real issue is offenders. How many of those remain undetected? How many offenders are active criminals and not having their collar felt?

The answer is, of course, very few. Study after study shows the reconviction time for most offenders as being around two years. In my view, in this country, we catch the majority of active offenders about every 18 months to two years, which is about as fast as the criminal justice system can currently process them. There aren’t great cohorts of undetected villains. It’s all much simpler than we had been depressed into believing. The criminal justice system has the capability to be on top of it. And it’s worth coming to work after all.

That last point is not trivial. When people in the criminal justice system think that what they are doing is marginal or worse, they are not likely to do well. They are not going to think it’s worthwhile engaging brain.

This different view of the criminal justice system should lead us to different structures, different systems: in particular, each time a recidivist offender comes into the system, we should not be treating him as if we haven’t seen him before. We should be viewing where he is in his career. What intervention at this stage would move him away from crime and protect the public?

The Home Office has started to produce the figures. A mere 100,000 people are responsible for 50% of all crime. A tiny cohort of 5000 people are responsible for 9% of all crime. Suddenly the problem is becoming manageable. These are numbers which are not so big as to be dispiriting. We can get so much from focusing on the offenders who are causing the most pain.

And what is more, having seen the criminal justice system properly, we can get our heads round the implications of this and get the true message across to the offender. This is that people who carry on in crime get caught and put before the courts. You are not unlucky to get caught: if you go on long enough it becomes a certainty. It’s simply wrong to think that you or anyone else can get away with it.

That is the message which may well of itself drive down crime. Cynicism has too long been encouraging offenders and offending. Cynical criminology has led to a lot of extra crime and made the lives of many victims nastier that they should have been.

And then we can turn our attention properly to the arms of the criminal justice system. The difference between a well-performing police force and a poorly-performing police force is probably down to no more than the difference between the speed at which they catch their prolific offenders – say after 30 offences or 40 – not whether they catch them at all, because being caught is what almost invariably happens in the end.

The courts need to grasp the implications of the fact that, over about 18 months or so, they will see virtually all of their locality’s offenders. They do indeed have the power to do something about their local criminals: it is they who are managing them. The bunch of offenders appearing in front of them is not some random strolling band of players. It’s the majority of their local offending population.

Fortunately, more widely, there are success stories to be seen – one might almost say in every district. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which, in another example of being in the place where you catch the work, I was responsible for implementing, created local crime and disorder partnerships and a whole range of initiatives between the local authority and the police to reduce crime. Inevitably, to start with, many of these initiatives were never going to have that much impact. But, over time, some would be bound to roll up into bringing about major reductions in crime.

One example in the South East is Hastings, where crime has fallen by around 25%. Another is right here in the Paulsgrove district of Portsmouth where we can see significant year-on-year reductions in crime in a relatively deprived area. Or, elsewhere in Portsmouth, car crime has been reduced by 30%. This wasn’t done by careful academic pondering. As we are in Portsmouth, we can use the words of Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous and terrifying signal, it was done by “engaging the enemy more closely”. That is the success story of the Crime and Disorder Act. There are crime and disorder partnerships which rightly believe that they can reduce crime and are getting on with it: they do it by concentrating on the detail.

So what’s happening? Crime in Britain has fallen every year since 1995. Crime has reduced by 25% since 1997. Burglary is down 39% to a 17-year low. Violence is down 24% and vehicle thefts down 31%. The chances of being a victim of crime are at their lowest for 20 years. The average household is a victim of burglary only once in 50 years; of vehicle crime, for those who own a vehicle, only once in 67 years; and of theft from the person, also only once in 67 years.

We are targeting prolific offenders, we are spending record amounts of money on drug treatment, the prisons are full, crime is coming down, we must be doing some things right. The only trouble is that still nobody seems to believe it, but that is a debate for another time – or you can read another paper on my website.

As I said, my career has spanned what I regard as the great depression of British criminology which was driven by too many people trimming their sails to the prevailing orthodoxy rather than challenging it.

But we can now see that we know what to do about crime and when we have the systems in place, and the resources to do it, crime will come down – equally, when we don’t, it won’t. All the evidence is that we are well able to reduce crime in this country to levels which are substantially below where they are now. That is the very considerable prize of moving to a post-cynical position. The quality of our life, indeed, our economy, depends on it. Welcome to the South East.

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

* Independent: 10 February 2000
Christopher Hood, Robert Baldwin and Henry Rothstein “Assessing the Dangerous Dogs Act: when does a regulatory law fail?”  Public Law, Summer 2000, pp282-305.  The same data also feature in “The Government of Risk” OUP 2001.