Sadiq Khan MP, shadow Justice Secretary, asked the Ministry of Justice, for figures relating to custodial sentences imposed in 2012 for a number of offences. The provided the figures, which can be accessed here. Do take a look at them, because much of what is being said in the press today is not supported by the figures.
Where to start?
The first question is where to start…
There are numerous routes this blog post could venture down and I was tempted to have a jolly good look at the statistics themselves – ‘what do they really tell us?’. But in fact, I decided to have a look at what is being said about the statistics.
Let’s start with the man responsible for the story; Sadiq Khan MP. Mr Khan was, prior to entering parliament in 2005, a human rights solicitor.
On his tumblr site, Mr Khan said:
“The British public will rightly question why some people found guilty of very serious and violent crimes are avoiding going to prison. Victims of crime need confidence that those guilty of these serious crimes are properly punished. There is a concern that one of the reasons for so many non-custodial sentences for serious offences is to save money. For many of the most heinous offences going to prison is the only appropriate option to both punish and rehabilitate. This Government needs to get a grip on this, and ensure that dangerous and violent crimes are properly dealt with.”
Law and order is always a hot topic and the main parties are constantly trying to be the party who is tough on crime. (It appears irrelevant to the powers that be that it has been shown that there are better ways to reduce crime, specifically reoffending. “The next Labour government will be tougher on crime” may well win some votes. “The next Labour government will take a sensible, evidenced-based approach to criminal justice” is less likely to (though it would raise a few eyebrows).
And so, the politicians clamber over one another to get their media sound bite out their first. Sadiq Khan did so, but with a statement which didn’t really say very much. Let’s take a closer look.
“The British public will rightly question why some people found guilty of very serious and violent crimes are avoiding going to prison.
This is misleading because it suggests that offenders convicted of very serious and violent crimes are receiving non-custodial or suspended sentences. That is manifestly not what the statistics tell us.
Victims of crime need confidence that those guilty of these serious crimes are properly punished.
Next contestant on Mastermind – Sadiq Khan from Tooting. Specialist subject – the bleedin’ obvious.
There is a concern that one of the reasons for so many non-custodial sentences for serious offences is to save money.
This is slightly more complex Whilst it is judges, not the government who decides who goes to prison or not, the judges apply the law as enacted by Parliament. Therefore, the comment about concerns over non-custodial sentences arising out of a desire to save money are not, at first blush, as stupid as they sound. However, in suggesting that sentencing policy is driven by a desire to save money is utterly stupid. Parliament has over a number of years created, amended and further amended countless criminal justice acts and statutory instruments, making the law needlessly complex and difficult to understand (sometimes even in direct conflict with other provisions). It has also enacted minimum sentences (such as for knife crime, murder, certain domestic burglaries, drug trafficking and firearms offences) which ensure in many cases that offenders spend longer in prison than the court thinks is necessary. CJS legislation is almost entirely political, serving political ends. It does not save money. We have an enormously high prison population, more than four times the figure it was 100 years ago when Winston Churchill was Home Secretary. To suggest that sentencing policy is driven by a desire to save money is ludicrous.
For many of the most heinous offences going to prison is the only appropriate option to both punish and rehabilitate.
Clearly that is the case. Does Mr Khan know what the word heinous means? We imprison people for offences which are a million miles away from ‘heinous’.
This Government needs to get a grip on this, and ensure that dangerous and violent crimes are properly dealt with.”
‘Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it.’ (H/t to David Allen Green. Read his ‘The Something Must Be Done Act 2014 post at Legal Cheek.) More media soundbite rubbish.
What don’t the statistics tell us?
The statistics tell us the percentage of people receiving immediate custodial sentences for a variety of offences, and the length of those sentences in four brackets. That might sound obvious but it is necessary to think about what that tells us…and what it doesn’t tell us.
It does not tell us any of the following:
The age of the offender – it is important to remember that to reflect their reduced culpability, youths and child offenders receive shorter sentences than adults.
The number of guilty pleas – a guilty plea can in ordinary circumstances attract a discount of up to 1/3 off a sentence. That is capable of bringing an immediate custodial sentence below the custody threshold, enabling a non-custodial sentence to be passed.
The number of suspended sentences – where a person is given a suspended sentence and the breach it or commit an offence within the operational period, they can be resentenced and have the original term activated. A suspended sentence is a custodial sentence, just not an immediate one.
And most importantly, it does not tell you the type of offences for which the non-immediate custodial sentences were imposed. To say 11,005 of the 22,427 offenders convicted of burglary received a non-immediate custodial sentence tells you nothing about the offence or the offender. Many of these could have been first time offenders, burglary of commercial premises (which for some reason is often treated as being less serious), committed by youths, committed by those with drug addictions who would receive more effective treatment in the community (drugs are very easy to get in prison). The non-immediate custodial sentences for burglary will not be the repeat offender who has hundreds of convictions, so don’t let the press or the politicians fool you.
Sentencing is fact specific and the judge will impose a sentence which fits both the crime and the circumstances of the offender. These statistics are not able to reflect the multiplicity of ways offences can be committed. There can be numerous reasons why a non-immediate custodial sentence is not imposed, and these statistics can’t reflect that.
What do the statistics tell us?
They tell us how many people receive custodial sentences, and of what length, for a variety of offences.
They tell us that in fact, more people are going to prison, and for longer.
They tell us that Parliament shouldn’t be trust to draft CJS legislation, because when they play politics with the criminal justice system, there is little chance of it being for the best. Or based on evidence.
So what about the politicians?
It is disappointing, but not surprising, that Labour have jumped at a chance to spin some otherwise uninteresting statistics into a ‘we’re tougher on crime than you are’ squabble. Along with the ‘hardworking family’, the victim is the watchword at the minute. Everyone is talking about putting the victim at the centre of the CJS by giving them greater rights, consulting them, sticking up for them. Ironically, the best thing to do for victims is to reduce crime; that can be done by focusing on rehabilitation and largely that involves not locking so many people up.
These statistics don’t demonstrate a system that is an affront to victims, but our failure to rehabilitate offenders – which has been the case for far too long – certainly is.
For a more balanced, less ranty, and very interesting assessment of the statistics see Richard Garside’s blog for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.