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

Christopher N Howarth