I’m currently working my way through a series of books on crime, violence and recidivism or reoffending that I’ve quaintly named the ’12 Dissertation Disciples’ as I’m very much trusting in them to give me some kind of clue as to how to write the damn thing, although I’m truly hoping one of them doesn’t betray me in a majorly cruciferous way (I know that refers to a family of vegetables but I’m feeling it, okay). Anywho, one of these books is a study from 1994 by Charles Lloyd, George Mair and Mike Hough and it basically looks at UK reconviction rates whilst at the same time taking a long hard look at how we measure such data and to what end.
They made a number of very interesting observations that should hopefully serve in my dissertation project, which will involve an evaluation of the effectiveness of a rehabilitation programme designed to desist criminal behaviour. The italicisation there is important because it would be erroneous to evaluate such a project for its effectiveness in its ability to reduce crime on the basis of reconviction rates alone…
Reconviction rate data are fundamentally flawed and crucial at the very same time. They are majorly important as a general indication of national and regional performance of policing, the courts and HMP institutions – increases in reconviction rates demonstrates that something is going wrong somewhere without being able to accurately distinguish the nuance behind its failings. It falls down for a number of reasons when used to determine criminal trends: numero uno is the fact that reconviction does not equal reoffence and therefore doesn’t reflect who, what or why causes the latter to occur (or reoccur), plus there’s a whole hierarchy of levels between committing an offence and actually being reconvicted, for a start you need to get caught, for instance.
Another issue with reconviction rates is that depending on what data you’re looking at, the definition of reconviction can differ! In some it simply refers to police involvement whilst in others it could refer to arrest, incarceration, or presentation in court. And on top of that, the purposes for convicting an individual in the first place can be motivated for a number of reasons not limited to simply trying to correct and prevent further naughtiness, for example as a means to ensure public safety or as a statement to make an example of an individual.
The choices made in a courtroom aren’t just reflective of the individual, but also of a society in a particular time and place as well as the specific legal team handling a case and making those decisions. Ultimately, the people responsible for maintaining law and order are just that, people, trying to make their best judgement. Nowadays with the help of much criminological and psychological research, it is not just the severity of a crime that’s considered when sentencing someone, they also look at that person’s context personally and socially – factors that are crucial for deciding the appropriate sentence.
Major predictors of reconviction according to the analysis consistently proved to be age and criminal history. Most often, young men that have been in and out of prison for years are those most likely to be trapped in a recidivistic cycle – mostly for what you’d call low-risk, high-reward crimes such as burglary or car theft. From previously having studied developmental psychology, and aggression in social psychology, it is evident in both instances that, for one thing, young people have not developed a concrete sense of self or identity by the time they are 18 years old – contrary to popular belief. In-fact, and particularly for men, it can take much longer (up to around 30 years of age, on average) before people gain a solid sense of who they are.
This is important because the above statistic demonstrating that lads are becoming trapped in crime seems suspiciously related to the widely-known fact that teenagers notably take risks as a means to explore the bounds of right and wrong. Consequently, wrong place, wrong time mischief encountered and reprimanded by authority could have the potential to lay foundations for a pattern of thrill-seeking identity establishment, all the while attributing themselves to their behaviour. I’ll be exploring the mental health implications associated with exposure to crime from adolescence in future posts, so stay tuned for that one.
What do we currently do with young men stuck in these cycles? Increasingly, and especially for minor crime, they are likely to be cautioned on the basis of a first offence, or are fined, or are issued with an IPNU (Injuction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance…doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like ASBO did, does it?) More serious or persistent offenders are usually presented with jail time or community service orders, although most recently suspended sentences are in vogue, which works a bit like parole (keep nose clean, keep out of nick deal).
However, Nothing Works™! This is a bit of a moth-eaten phrase used by experts of the criminal justice system of yore, referring to the fact that no type of sentence, whether considering an individual circumstances or not, appears to effectively reform behaviour en-masse because depending on the offence, on average around half will reoffend within 12 months of sentencing (CSO) or release (prison). At the same time, the UK is faced with other major HMP-related hurdles i.e. underfunded and overcrowded prisons – we have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, despite the fact that it’s rubbish at reforming behaviour apparently. So what’s the solution then?
As Simon Amsell said in his most recent stand-up comedy show, Numb, where he jovially imagined a utopian future, and reflected on the pointlessness of prisons:
Do you remember when we had prisons? When we separated people off into cages rather than giving them the love they needed that would have stopped all the crime?
Alas, love is the answer as soppy as it may seem, or perhaps more technically speaking – attending to and addressing criminogenic needs (the things that put people at greater risk of involvement in crime, such as unemployment or drug addiction). In theory the more of these that are addressed, the less likely a person will reoffend. I’ll be discussing this in greater detail in future blogs but the point is that there is a clear transition going on here thank goodness, from ‘what type of thug goes in what type of shut-up box’, to a clearer appreciation of the importance in understanding why it is that people commit crime in the first place and for what reason they return to it after being punished.
Reconviction rates mean nothing to the individual breaking the law for reasons known only to them, and they mean nothing to the victims associated with their crimes.