Rory Geoghegan is Head of Criminal Justice at the Centre for Social Justice.
The Justice Secretary’s recognition that short-term prison sentences do little to tackle root causes is well-received. But most community sentences do little to help either – and don’t even give victims a brief respite.
As voter concern about law, order, and crime grows, with almost one in four voters giving it top billing – a seven year high, and up from 8th to 3rd place in just a couple of months – the need to reboot crime policy looks set to grow. The most persistent offenders are very often those addicted to drugs like heroin and crack cocaine. Injecting heroin users can easily commit 260 or more crimes per year, and we know that 70 per cent of shop thefts and almost half of all acquisitive crime is committed by those who use one or more of heroin and crack cocaine.
The driver of their offending is their addiction. Tony Blair’s government sought to get “tough on crime” and “tough on the causes of crime” – but only with mixed success. One of the great achievements was to create a focus upon prolific drug-addicted offenders and the Integrated Offender Management approach. But there remains much to be done: within both the Home Office and Ministry of Justice briefs. At a time when David Gauke and Rory Stewart, the Prisons Minister, rightly describe the flaws with short-term prison sentences for many offenders, we should not pretend that non-custodial sentences fare much better for this cohort.
The Government’s new female offender strategy, due very soon, looks set to signal what appetite or ambition exists to get serious about the causes of crime. Offenders and victims alike gain little from a system that dishes out sentences that amount to little more than half-hearted box-checking and that are wholly ineffective at tackling the root causes of crime.
Our latest Centre for Social Justice report – Desperate for a Fix – focuses on prolific drug-addicted offenders and proposes a new Second Chance Programme that blends the necessary combination of intensity and duration to finally tackle the root causes of the most prolific drug-addicted offending. We focus our assessment on shop theft – one of the most prevalent offences – and one that features in the criminal careers of many prolific offenders, especially those addicted to hard drugs. Going directly after shop theft as the trigger for the Second Chance Programme, sends a clear “tough on crime” signal, while also creating the space for an equally “tough on the causes of crime” effort in the form of intensive and sustained drug treatment and recovery.
The first phase would be in secure accommodation – incapacitating the offender from further acquisitive crime, and enabling detox, stabilisation, and sustained progress on drug treatment and recovery.
The second phase would be set firmly within a residential therapeutic community – building on and cementing the work towards a life free of drugs and crime.
The programme is not entirely without precedent – with both Australia and the Netherlands having similar programmes aimed at the most prolific drug-addicted offenders. The best evidence suggests that a 15-17 per cent reduction in both drug use and offending could be achieved.
And if just one in 20 of those participating turned their backs on drugs and crime, then the programme would more than pay for itself. An investment of approximately £50 million a year over five years would enable up to 10,000 of the most prolific drug-addicted offenders to participate in the Second Chance Programme – with funding pooled from central and local sources.
In addition to helping clear up estates, towns, and inner cities, the Second Chance Programme also presents an opportunity for Police and Crime Commissioners to unite local partners in the fight against crime and the causes of crime more broadly. Coupled with investment to build on the CSJ’s Housing First pilots announced in the Autumn Budget, the opportunity exists to transform the landscape for drug treatment and recovery – and to cut crime and improve the quality of life in some of our poorest communities in the process.