Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Throw away the key: serial offending in the UK

The following article has been republished in full from The Pryer as the original has been archived on an old server and is no longer available. This article was originally published in June 2011. 

(c) Lionel Allorge

The Telegraph published an article yesterday, claiming that serial offenders are far less likely to be jailed than they were a decade ago. Other newspapers, including The Daily Express, have also been berating a criminal justice system, that they claim is soft and operating a revolving door policy.

I have downloaded the latest Ministry of Justice bulletin. Pages 68-69 contain the following information on offending histories:

Just over half of offenders who committed indictable offences and were cautioned in 2010 had no previous criminal history, although 3% had 15 or more previous cautions/convictions:
  • 54.1% of offenders of all ages who received a reprimand, warning or caution for an indictable offence in 2010 had no previous offences;
  • 3.2% of offenders had received a reprimand, warning, caution or conviction on 15 or more previous occasions. The majority of these offenders received a reprimand, warning or caution for drug offences and theft and handling stolen goods offences; 
  • The equivalent figures for the year 2000 show that the criminal history profile of cautioned offenders is changing over time: 67.3% had no previous offences while 1.3% had 15 or more previous occasions.
The criminal history profile of sentenced offenders is also changing over time. More offenders sentenced for indictable offences in 2010 had previous offences, and a higher proportion of offenders had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions:
  • the proportion of all offenders sentenced for indictable offences who had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions has increased steadily from 16.8% in 2000 to 28.9% in 2010; 
  • Over the same period the proportion of sentences given to offenders with no previous convictions or cautions fell from 12.3% to 10.5%. 
The criminal history of offenders receiving different sentences varies by sentence, with custodial sentences associated with higher levels of previous offences, in 2010:
  • 43% of adult offenders receiving custodial sentences have 15 or more previous convictions/cautions.
  • 27% of adult offenders receiving a fine have 15 or more previous convictions/cautions
A-Block at Alcatraz (c) Nonie
In his column, Tom Whitehead repeatedly refers to “hardened offenders” as those being cautioned or avoiding custody. I understand the need to sell papers and online advertising, but the sensationalist use of “hardened offenders” is somewhat different to the offenders identified above. Moreover, the report indicates that serial offenders are getting their ‘just desserts’ and only a minority are getting away with it. The article is clearly geared towards a more punitive idea of justice. Yet punitive measures, such as imprisonment, are clearly not working if criminals re-offend. Fifteen or more times.
Based at Kings College, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies estimate that the annual cost of keeping someone imprisoned is £38,000.There have been several studies conducted on public opinion and sentencing policy. Many indicate that the public are less inclined to seek a custodial sentence when other factors are known.
Roberts and Hough (2011) have recently published an article that explores under what circumstances the British public would opt for an alternative community penalty over imprisonment as punishment. They found that many respondents considered community punishment sufficient, even for relatively serious offences. Along with knowing the financial costs of a custodial sentence, consideration of an individual's circumstances and a thorough understanding of the non-custodial option were determining factors that altered these participants’ perceptions of sentencing.

The Conservative government are right to look anew at sentencing. However, they need to balance a whole range of issues that take into account the rights of the victim(s) and their families, and the rights and circumstances of the accused.

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