How we can be smarter about fighting crime
An interesting new movement is growing in the US. Faced with unsustainable costs, rightwing politicians are questioning the decades-old mantra that an ever higher rate of incarceration is the best way to fight crime. Former governor of Florida Jeb Bush is the latest high-profile Republican to back the call for new thinking.
Both in the UK and the US, old thinking focused solely on tough enforcement, backed up by an ever-expanding prison population. Indeed, the UK prison population has nearly doubled since 1993 and is at a record level. Yet while crime has fallen - a global trend - it remains too high, with too many victims. Antisocial behaviour is a public concern and blights lives.
Half of all crime is committed by those who have already been through the criminal justice system. So the government has been driving a radical programme of reforms to reduce reoffending. Our "rehabilitation revolution", under which we are rolling out the principle of paying public, private and voluntary agencies by results to break the cycle of reoffending, is a truly radical scheme - indeed a world first.
But it must also make sense to prevent crime in the first place. This is hardly new. Around 180 years ago, the founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, said: "The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder."
The police cannot prevent crime alone; many local agencies, including health organisations and local authorities, must share this responsibility, and so must citizens. The multibillion-pound costs of failure fall not just on the criminal justice system but on public services and society as whole. Yet resources have historically ended up in the part of the system that comes into play when things go wrong - the police, prisons and probation.
As public services face the challenges of rising demand and constraint in resourcing, wise spending decisions must be made. Increasingly, the focus of the health service is on public health and disease prevention as well as treating the sick, and these should not be considered as alternatives.
It has been nearly two decades since Tony Blair first talked about being tough on the causes of crime. But his remedy - a flood of public spending - meant expensive but poorly targeted programmes. By the end of his premiership Blair admitted that "the rising tide had not lifted all ships". Today, the resources simply do not exist to repeat the experiment, even if it had worked.
The left's faith in an ever larger and more expensive state also failed to understand the importance of social structures and order. Family breakdown, welfare dependency and school discipline were largely ignored. Drugs policy emphasised maintenance, not abstinence, and violence was fuelled by the liberalisation of alcohol licensing. Today's offenders grew up in New Labour's years.
So the solution must lie in programmes that are locally delivered, free from central micro-management, and specifically targeted. The work on troubled families launched by the prime minster after the riots last summer demonstrates the new approach. Delivery is being left to professionals, the focus is on outcomes, and we will be paying for results - a reduction in youth offending.
If offending occurs, it must always have consequences. The first instances of wrongdoing - very often nuisance or antisocial behaviour - must be dealt with effectively. Yet one survey found that around half of prison inmates have been convicted for at least 30 offences prior to their custodial sentence.
When cautions are handed down repeatedly, fines aren't paid, or community sentences aren't rigorous, a damaging message is sent to offenders. The state too often acts like a bad parent, neglectful in repeatedly tolerating bad behaviour, then inevitably harsh. Like a good parent, the state should set clear rules and boundaries from the start, dealing with transgression swiftly and surely to prevent escalation.
We should not be afraid of punishment, but treatment is often needed, too. Offenders with mental health issues should be identified as early as possible. Those with substance misuse problems should be put on courses that clean them up rather than just maintaining the habit.
Being smart on crime does not mean being soft-headed. Crime should never be excused and offenders should not be treated as victims. Getting them back on to the straight and narrow should be a rigorous task where we demand results, not a misplaced act of compassion.
In November the first police and crime commissioners will be elected. The best of them will focus on crime prevention, not just on catching criminals. The public wearied of hollow rhetoric on crime a long time ago. They are equally sceptical of solutions that appear to be more interested in offenders than victims.
But people will listen to the commonsense idea that we should be smart on crime. Good policy today will prevent the costs of failure tomorrow.
This article is based on the keynote address to the 12th annual Jerry Lee Crime Prevention Symposium in Washington on Monday 23 April