Smart on Crime

Hart Senate Office Building, Washington DC

Keynote Address to the 12th Annual Jerry Lee Crime Prevention Symposium

I would like to thank Professor Sherman and the Jerry Lee Foundation for inviting me to speak to you at today's Crime Prevention Symposium.             

I am very honoured.  And looking at the list of speakers today I see an impressive role-call of academics, police chiefs, officials and analysts.

A real audience of experts.  And there's nothing more daunting for a politician than to be confronted by people with expertise or the facts or, most dangerous of all, evidence.

This gathering attests to the importance of prevention in reducing crime, reducing costs and reducing the number of victims.

Crime prevention should be a straightforward goal and deliver obvious wins.

And yet on both sides of the Atlantic we find ourselves operating criminal justice systems where prevention has been the poor relation in policy and resources have historically ended up in the part of the system that comes into play when things go wrong - especially prisons.

Today I want to outline why I believe a change of policy focus is necessary and achievable.

So that instead of picking up the costs of failure we invest in preventing crime.

I want to explain how this policy shift is already beginning in the UK.

And I want to argue that policy which is focused on crime prevention isn't soft on crime, but smart on crime.

Our shared journey

In some respects the US and UK have been on a shared criminal justice journey over the last thirty years.

Both countries faced rising crime and violence in 70s and 80s ...

Both countries faced a rising tide of social breakdown and urban violence ...

Both countries responded by spending more on criminal justice and policing ...

Both countries locked up more people, made sentences longer, recruited more police and passed more laws ...

I appreciate that there have been significant differences, not least that the rate of incarceration in the US is five times higher than in the UK.

But there have been similarities of approach.  And the important point is this: now both the UK and, I see, some parts of the US are changing course.

I've been reading about the 'Right on Crime' initiative with interest.

This change is happening, in part, because the context has changed:

Crime, although still too high, has been reduced ...

Old policies have showed their limitations ...

And there is much less money to spend.

With less money available but rising demand for public safety, new policies are needed.

Some of the old policies didn't work ...

Some worked, but cost too much ...

And some were tested to destruction.

How did we get here?

In the UK, the Right's support for tough crime policies dates from the 1980s.

Reacting against the then view of experts that there was little that the police and criminal justice agencies could do to reduce crime, politicians advocated a tough response, believing that was all the public wanted.  New prisons were built, sentences increased and the number of police officers on the streets rose. 

But this approach only delivered on part of the public's priorities.  Yes, they wanted criminals incapacitated and punished, and they still do.

But above all they wanted less crime.  The one dimensional approach failed to take seriously the causes of crime and the need for prevention.

The belief was simple: that if we built enough jails and recruited enough police officers, we could beat crime - and we did not need to waste money on tackling causes.

But money was wasted.  By failing to address the roots of criminal behaviour, or effectively to rehabilitate offenders, we simply warehoused criminals - and during the 90s reconviction rates rose.

In the 1990s, Tony Blair realigned the Labour Party with this 'tough on crime' rhetoric - and cemented a consensus: tackling crime meant focusing on inputs, with more criminal justice spending.  He built a lot of prisons, and he passed a lot of new laws.

Of course, he wanted to focus on causes too - unemployment, skills, truancy, the bad start in life that leads many into crime.

But his brilliant soundbite that we should be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" proved not be enough.

He knew that prevention mattered and thought that improved education, more jobs, and more investment in early years would tackle crime's causes.  The diagnosis was right, but the cure was wrong.

Too often it was characterised by a flood of social spending which was questionable in terms of reducing crime.  Again, it was focused on inputs - crucially the amount of money spent - and reacted to, rather than shaped, the life experiences of those most likely to offend.

Supported by borrowed money and believing that every intervention works, no matter what the evidence, it was never going to be sustainable.  And worst of all society ended up paying three times over.

Once for the original crime ...

Once for the intervention that failed ...

And then once more to pick up the pieces of that failure, usually when offending occurred again.

So, what was the result of these expensive experiments?

Apologists for the approach say that crime overall fell during this period - but of course it fell across the developed world, and there are as many theories for why this happened as there are people in the room.  And categories of crime did not fall evenly - the most serious violent crime, for example, remains unacceptably high.

But perhaps most importantly, people did not feel safer and key public concerns, such as antisocial behaviour - what you would call ‘quality of life crimes, the vandalism, graffiti and low level disorder that blight some neighbourhoods - were either ignored or were inadequately dealt with.  A report two years ago by our independent inspectorate of constabulary showed that antisocial behaviour remains the most common problem, impacting everywhere and blighting people's lives.

Drugs policy emphasised maintenance, not abstinence, and the liberalisation of alcohol licensing did nothing to stem the problem of alcohol-related violence and disorder.

Reoffending was barely reduced and when the Coalition Government came to power two years ago some prisons had reoffending rates of almost 75 per cent within just one year of release. 

Slow, inefficient court processes remained unreformed and justice became more remote from communities and more reliant on administrative disposals.

The danger that generalised spending on social reforms would not produce the intended results was obvious.  A relatively small number of individuals account for a very large proportion of all crime.  So more expensive social services don't target criminals efficiently.

By the end of his premiership, Tony Blair himself recognised that his original analysis on public services had been "incomplete and therefore literally misguided".  "The rising tide", he said, "had not lifted all the ships".

And the cost of this failure was astronomical.  Setting aside the appalling economic cost to our country of unsustainable public spending, the UK's prison population has nearly doubled since 1993.

We now have one of the most expensive criminal justice systems in the world, spending more as a percentage of GDP than any other country in the OECD - some £23 billion when this government came to power two years ago.  And now we have no more money to spend.

Yet, astonishingly, the argument that crime can only be tackled by continually increasing the amount of public spending still persists today.  But even if we weren't facing the current economic situation, even if money was freely available, it would be simply wrong to spend public money on poorly targeted, centrally micromanaged programmes that don't deliver results.

New context

We all know that the financial crisis means that over the coming decade in the UK and US there will be less to spend on public services - including all parts of the criminal justice system.

In the UK this has meant reductions in spending on the police, courts and penal services.

Spending less need not, however, mean getting less.  We are promoting programmes to improve efficiency, driving out waste with the aim of protecting or even improving frontline delivery.

But as public services face the challenges of rising demand and constraint in resourcing, wise spending decisions must be made.  Increasingly, for instance, the focus of our health policy is on public health and disease prevention as well as treating the sick, and these should not be considered as alternatives.  If someone becomes ill, they must be treated.  But effective interventions will lessen the chances that they become ill, and so reduce demand.

Prevention is better than cure

In the same way, I believe that we need to shift our whole approach from narrow crime suppression to crime prevention.

Of course detection of crime is necessary, just as incarceration is an essential part of the system.  And I reject the suggestion that a focus on prevention is somehow incompatible with a robust response when offending occurs.

But the response by the State after crimes have happened - arrest, charge, prosecution and conviction, let alone custody - is expensive, and is only likely to get even more costly in future.

And the cost to wider society of the crimes themselves is far greater.   Preventing crime is the right thing to do for victims, society, and potential criminals.  But it is also sound investment.

None of this is really new.  180 years ago the founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel set out that the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.  That core mission should remain the same today - but the police cannot prevent crime alone.  Many local agencies, including health organisations and local authorities, must share this responsibility, and so must citizens.

1.  Preventing crime

So the first key element of being smart on crime is to focus on crime prevention.

If the Right ignored crime prevention, so the Left failed properly to tackle family breakdown, welfare dependency, alcoholism, drug addiction, school discipline and so on - all factors that contribute to the social structures that help maintain order.

In fact, family breakdown, welfare dependency and educational failure all got worse or persisted over a decade where public spending rose rapidly.

The UK has the highest teenage birth and abortion rate in Western Europe.  While fewer young people are drinking alcohol, those that do are drinking more; and almost one in five children have taken drugs.

The number of economically inactive adults - those not in employment and not even looking for work - soared to over 9 million.  Spending on working age welfare soared by 60 per cent over two decades.

Despite increasing spending on education by 60 per cent standards barely improved and thousands of children each year left primary school unable to read or write.

Being smart on crime recognises the need for tough enforcement, and the importance of tackling the causes of crime.  But it also requires an understanding of social order - of the importance of the strong society.

Crime reduces and communities are made safer when these three dimensions  are addressed together.  The public see this.  When asked the primary cause of crime, respondents consistently cite "poor parenting", in some surveys ahead of "weak sentencing" or "too few police officers".

Of course they believe that we need effective policing and prisons that work, too - and they are right.  But the public knows how important it is to rebuild social order.

That's why we are working to improve school discipline, reduce welfare dependency, stop family breakdown, get people off drugs and alcohol and improve mental health outcomes.

Following last summer's riots in England the Prime Minster, David Cameron, spoke of the need for a social response to the disorder as well as a security response.

He announced plans to begin work to turn around the lives of 120,000 of the most troubled families.  These are those with the most serious problems who cause most serious problems.  In most of these families there are a range of problems including parents not working, kids not in school, the family causing crime and anti-social behaviour, mental health and drug problems.

The initiative, which draws together the efforts of local agencies including the police, schools and councils, is supported by almost half a billion pounds of central Government funding over three years.

If this sounds like a familiar social programme, with all the flaws of publicly funded initiatives, it isn't.

First of all, unlike previous interventions, it is delivered locally, free of the central Government micromanagement that can skew results and shut professionals out of the decision making process.

It reflects a significant new approach across government, which is to scrap central direction and targets, focusing instead on outcomes.

Second, in order to create the right incentives, this central funding decreases over the life of the initiative, so by the last year just 40 per cent of the budget will be paid by central government, with the remaining 60 per cent coming from local agencies.

Third, we are paying by results.  Local authorities will receive the funds for every family that makes real, significant progress towards parental employment, attendance at school, and reduced offending and antisocial behaviour.

We are applying this principle of payment by results more widely, rolling it out for drugs and alcohol interventions, community sentences and post-release supervision and support, engaging public, private and voluntary agencies.

Introducing payment by results into the criminal justice system is a truly radical programme - indeed, I believe it is a world first.

The idea is important, because we will be paying for what works.

We will be relying on professionals who are closest to the problem and will have both the expertise and a strong incentive to back proven programmes.

We will develop a diverse market of providers, to unlock the innovation and creativity of private and not-for-profit organisations.

And, crucially, we are getting over the hurdle which has obstructed the idea of 'justice reinvestment' - switching resources from the penal system to crime prevention - in the past.

No finance minister or budget director will be persuaded to gamble a large rise in generalised state spending on the promise that social ills will be cured and crime will fall.

They know that they'll just end up paying twice over - once for expensive and poorly targeted state spending, then again for the criminal justice system to pick up the pieces.

But targeted interventions which concentrate funding on the problem, which work and where savings down the line can be captured effectively, do enable that justice reinvestment.

Smart policies need to be evidence-led and cost-effective.  They need to encourage innovation and devolve power so that new approaches can be trialled and those that work can be quickly implemented.

With the evidence or results we get we want a hard-headed assessment of value - is a probation scheme value for money or is it just what has always been done?  Does a rehabilitation programme really stop offending, or is it just well-meaning?  And payment by results will force those questions to be answered.

2.  Swift and sure justice

So the first key element of being smart on crime is a targeted focus on crime prevention.

But if offending does occur, it must be gripped immediately.  And this leads me to the second element of being smart on crime - the need for swift and sure justice.

For too long the State has been sending the wrong signals to offenders.  If offending occurs, it should always have consequences.  The first instances of wrongdoing - very often nuisance or antisocial behaviour - must be dealt with effectively.

The riots in England last year provided a wake up call as to just how much better we need to do.  They revealed three important things to us, not all surprises, but they provided a sharp focus for reform.

First, the system has failed to grip offenders early enough.  Of the rioters who appeared before the courts before the end of September, three-quarters had previous criminal convictions and one quarter had been in prison.

Second, in spite of previous evidence to the contrary, the criminal justice system can react more quickly and barriers to joined up working between agencies can be brought down.

And third, when the criminal justice system does work together and provides a swift resolution it sends a clear signal to offenders about the impact of their behaviour.  This is ultimately good for the offenders, but it is also good for victims who are the ones who suffer most from delays in he system.

When cautions are handed down repeatedly, fines aren't paid, or community sentences aren't rigorous, a damaging message is sent to offenders.

As Professor Mark Kleiman has said, the State too often acts like a bad parent, neglectful in repeatedly tolerating bad behaviour, then inevitably harsh.

This failure to set clear rules and boundaries from the start and to deal with transgression swiftly and surely to prevent escalation simply encourages the flow through the criminal justice system.

The end result is a custodial sentence as the only option.  But the criminal justice system should be setting boundaries from the start.

So we are strengthening the system from the point of first contact.  We are introducing Neighbourhood Justice Panels, applying restorative justice principles to deal more effectively with low level offenders who would otherwise normally receive a simple administrative disposal, requiring them to face the consequences of their actions and make reparation to their victims and the community.

We are toughening up on fine collection and asset seizure.

And we are reforming community sentences which, for too long, have failed to command public confidence.

In the past these sentences have sometimes required just a weekly meeting with probation officers, and the minimum time which unemployed offenders sentenced to Community Payback are required is only six hours a week.

So we will now require that all community sentences have a strong punitive element and those given unpaid work will in future be required to do a full five-day week of productive work and job seeking.

Being smart means setting boundaries early to prevent behaviour getting worse and ensure that corrections work.

But it doesn't just mean being tough.  It means ensuring that interventions are appropriate.  We should not be afraid of punishment, but treatment is often needed, too.

We know that alcohol and drug misuse can be major drivers of criminality, and there is association between mental health problems and offending.

So we are piloting measures, working with our Department of Health, that will see much better integration between health and policing.  We will identify those with mental health issues who come into contact with the criminal justice system much more swiftly and - where appropriate - provide an early route out of custody and into care.

Being smart on crime does not mean being soft headed.  Crime should never be excused and offenders should not be treated as victims.  Getting those who transgress back onto the straight and narrow should be a rigorous task where we demand results, not a misplaced act of compassion.

Historically health providers have shuffled off responsibility for offenders to the criminal justice system, and now some call for it to be sent back.  And it is true that very often a police station or cell is not the right place for someone who needs help to be.  But what we need is effective partnership between the health and criminal justice system, not the passing back and forth of responsibility in which everyone - not least the public - loses out.

3.  Reduce re-offending

And this leads me to the third element of being smart on crime: breaking the cycle of re-offending.

Reform is essential because half of all crime is committed by offenders who have already been through the justice system.

One survey found that around half of prison inmates have been convicted of at least 30 offences prior to their custodial sentence.

Just as in the past we have watched as offenders clock up convictions and disposals until the system finally runs out patience and road to incarcerate them so we have we have watched as offenders who receive short-term custodial sentences offend again.

If they leave prison without supervision or support perhaps still unable to read or write still with drug or alcohol problems without a home or job to go to the consequences are predictable and almost inevitable - they will commit another crime.

And, indeed, 60 per cent of those sentenced to less than 12 months in prison re-offend within one year of release.

The proportion of young offenders who go on to commit new crimes is even higher.

We must break this cycle of re-offending.

So we reforming our jails so that they become prisons with a purpose.

We are introducing drug recovery wings in prisons.

We are driving a programme to make prisons places of meaningful work and training.

And the payment by results programme which I've already talked about is now being piloted in two prisons so that support is provided 'through the prison gate'.

Whereas once the police, probation and prison service tended to operate in silos, the need to save money is encouraging them to work together.

And this partnership working can yield impressive results, especially where the agencies co-locate and staff work alongside each other.

Integrated Offender Management programmes are successfully targeting prolific and priority offenders.   As one police officer described it to me, where once they would wait for a former inmate to commit the next crime, now they - together with their partners - are on the case before the prisoner is even released.

4.  New technology

The fourth element of being smart on crime is to harness new technology to improve crime prevention and target resources better.

We have already seen improvements in security of vehicles and property leading to significant falls in acquisitive crime and keeping streets safe.  Now we are seeing the use of GPS tracking to monitor offenders and enforce curfews, the use of technology to enforce sobriety requirements, and the use of video and better IT systems to make justice more efficient.

And, significantly, the sharing of information between forces and other agencies is enabling better targeting of criminals or those who pose the greatest risk.

It is essential that the use of new technology maintains public confidence.  Legitimacy, not just capability, must be a key element of being smart on  crime.  Technological advance offers opportunities for criminals, too.  But it should also open up smarter ways to fight crime.

Avoiding past mistakes

So these are the key elements of being smart on crime:

  • Targeted and cost-effective interventions to prevent crime.
  • Swift and sure justice to set boundaries for offenders.
  • Co-ordinated action to break the cycle of re-offending.
  • The use of new technology to target offenders and transform justice.

And to go on being smart, we need to avoid the mistakes of the past.  But there are factors which will keep us on course.

First, the need for austerity keeps us, laser-like, focused.  With less money to spend we need to be much clearer about the benefits we're getting.  We need to work together, and we need to prioritise investment on the highest yields - generally crime prevention.

Second, we will have much better accountability.  By paying by results agencies and providers will be held to account financially for their efforts, and interventions will be evidence-led.  We are introducing competition into the supply of prisons and probation services.

Policing is essentially a monopoly service - you cannot choose your police force.  So from this November the public will elect Police and Crime Commissioners to hold local forces to account.  These Commissioners will have a wider responsibility, working with local agencies to ensure community safety.

And a new National Crime Agency, focused on serious and organised crime, will be accountable to the Home Secretary.

And throughout our reforms runs the principle of transparency so that agencies can be held to account.  Our new national street level crime mapping website,, has received over 47 million visits since its launch.  We are now requiring publication of data on court performance and the re-offending rates of prisons, and from next month we will be adding justice outcomes so that people can see not just where a crime was committed, but what - if anything - happened to deal with it.

With the information to compare, citizens will be given the power to demand better performance, and failure will be revealed.


And that leads me to the final factor which I believe will keep up the pressure for us to be smart on crime.

The public interest.

Public safety is always the first priority of government.

Tight budgets cannot be an excuse to risk public safety.  We want to stabilise the prison population, but we will not fail to provide the custodial capacity that the courts require.

But we live in a new world.

We need a new approach because many of the old policies failed and they cost money we no longer have.

With less to spend we need to get smarter.

So yes, we need prison capacity to hold all those sentenced by the courts, and enough police to uphold laws, prevent crime, and tackle disorder.

And yes, these agencies make a difference, but safer societies rely on more than that.

So we need more of a focus on improving social structures to uphold the law and maintain order in communities, focusing on social as well as economic influences.

We need to recognise the importance of setting boundaries and rewarding and promoting responsibility throughout our society.  Because in the long-term you reduce the prison population by reducing crime.

In the long-term you tackle crime most effectively by preventing it - not simply suppressing it.

Both the Old Right and the New Left were wrong - it wasn't just about more prisons, more police and more enforcement, but neither was it just about these things plus more social spending.

From simply tough on crime, to tough on crime and the causes of crime, we now need to be smart on crime.

With cost-effective prevention measures that work, rigorous enforcement, and a criminal justice system that focuses on getting offenders back onto the straight and narrow.

The public wearied of hollow rhetoric on crime a long time ago.  They are equally sceptical of solutions which appear to be more interested in offenders than victims.

But people will listen to the common sense idea that we should be smart on crime.

Good policy today will prevent the costs of failure tomorrow.

Nick Herbert