Follow the evidence...
Here is the text of a speech I delivered at the CrimeStoppers annual dinner on November 17 2021.
I have been reflecting on my career in crime, as it were… all of us here I suspect have had a formative moment, an experience, an influence, a series of events, an individual that’s helped to shape the path we’ve taken - to be police officers, to work in law enforcement, to be volunteers in the justice system - or, like me, journalists specialising in policing and crime.
What moments or events made a difference for me? Jury service 30 years ago at Southwark Crown Court was certainly one of them: it gave me a unique perspective on our adversarial system of criminal justice that piqued my interest in the subject - though I won't be disclosing the details of our deliberations! But I’d go back even further.
Imagine if you will the music of Soft Cell, Madness and Wham! The year was 1982 or 1983 (I can’t recall which). I was 16 or 17. A Saturday night in Enfield, in north London. A group of us was walking back from a disco at Edmonton Cricket Club. So, I can’t recall the precise date - but I can remember the details of what happened that evening as though it was last week.
After we left the club, I looked around and saw that we were being followed by some boys; they were were carrying cricket stumps - and were clearly up for a fight. Three of us began to walk a bit faster while the two girls we were with slowed down to talk to them, to reason with them. They partially succeeded - the boys threw the stumps away.
But then they came after us.
I can still hear them running as they approached from behind. One of my friends, the fastest among us, bolted. My other friend was bundled to the ground. And me? I just froze. Awaiting the inevitable, being beaten up.
Afterwards we went to one of the girl’s houses and I can remember being in the bathroom shaking. I’d been given a cup of tea but I was in so much shock I couldn’t drink it. An older brother of one of the girls had a car and said he was going to drive around looking for the guys who’d attacked us. He said - and I have no idea if this was true - that he had a gun. He never found them.
There are two points to this. The first is how traumatised I was by what happened. I didn’t use that word at the time. But in the weeks that followed, I was worried about going out at night and when I walked past the spot where we’d been assaulted I was scared about being attacked again. And this wasn’t even a serious incident. No one was badly injured. Nothing on the scale of the stabbings that are sadly all too common among teenagers now. And so it’s left me with an appreciation and understanding of what victims go through - even though the incident I was involved in was trivial by comparison with many others. It also left me with an enduring sense of anger that the streets near where I lived felt so unsafe. And that feeling still bubbles up from time to time.
The other thing is this. That night, as we recovered from our ordeal, the one thing we never considered doing was calling the police. It just wasn’t an option. Why would the police be interested? What could they do about it? And if we did identify the perpetrators, pick them out of an ID parade, would we be safe? There’d surely be repercussions - and we could be targets.
Now, if these events had taken place a few years later, we’d have had a number to call, to report what happened anonymously. The Community Action Trust was established in 1988 and became CrimeStoppers seven year later. It seems remarkable that no anonymous tip off service existed back then in the early 80s; now, it is almost taken for granted.
And that brings me to the wider point I want to make. CrimeStoppers works. We know it works because of the thousands of pieces of information it has provided to police and other agencies that have given them leads in investigations or helped solve crimes. CrimeStoppers can’t blow its own trumpet in the way it would like to - because anonymity is threaded through what it does. But for £6 million per year it represents extraordinary value for money on any analysis. And only a fraction of it is taxpayers' money.
What does £6 million look like? It’s about four ten-thousandths of the total policing budget last year. Six million pounds gives us Airwave - for three and a half days. And £6 million houses 140 prisoners for a year, less than 0.2% of the entire prison population of England and Wales.
You’re probably thinking: of course Danny’s going to say nice things about CrimeStoppers - they’re buying his dinner! Yes, that's true. But I have seen a lot of schemes, projects, initiatives and programmes over the past 25 years, reporting and researching crime and justice, and I’m not convinced many would stand up to scrutiny and provide the much needed service this one does.
In fact, it is a real concern of mine. Can we honestly say that the billions spent on law enforcement, criminal justice and policing is money well spent?
The police service has a saying - follow the evidence. Go where the evidence takes you, without fear or favour. And from my experience, when it comes to major criminal investigations, that’s largely what happens. But I don’t believe the same rigour that top detectives apply to the most serious crimes is applied to the methods for preventing crime and addressing offending behaviour.
One of the most disturbing stories I covered was in 2017, when it emerged that an offending behaviour programme regarded for a quarter of a century as the gold standard for tackling sexual offending didn’t work. And not just 'didn’t work' - it made the sex offenders who went on the scheme more likely to reoffend. The research that showed the Sex Offender Treatment Programme was counter-productive had been commissioned by the Ministry of Justice in the expectation that it would prove the opposite. When officials received the initial findings of the research in 2012 they didn’t believe it. The researcher was discredited. And the scheme was allowed to continue for five years - until a further study confirmed that it was indeed a broken model. And it was rightly scrapped.
It was a salutary lesson for me. When I looked more widely into the issue I discovered that many of the schemes and programmes prisoners and offenders on probation had been sent on had not been evaluated as to their effectiveness. Sometimes there were good reasons; it can take time to properly test a project designed to stop people committing more crimes; some programmes have to be tried out before you know if they work. But the fact is that tens of thousands of people undertake interventions that have not been fully tested.
During the last year, I have been leading some research for Crest Advisory on the use of out-of-court disposals. And I can see the same pattern. Doubtless with the best of intentions, to keep offenders out of the criminal justice system, some police forces send offenders onto courses as part of a conditional caution, community resolution or diversionary activity without really knowing whether the programmes are effective. Just because someone attends a scheme doesn’t mean they’re going to change their behaviour. Just because an offender ticks the box at the end of a course to say they found it 'useful' doesn’t mean it’ll make any material difference. You need to find out through analysis and research if that scheme cuts reoffending - that’s the whole purpose after all. When an apparently successful pilot project is rolled out, you need to test whether the expansion of it has diluted its impact (I suspect that’s what happened with the Sex Offender Treatment Programme) and when a scheme is tweaked, you need to independently and honestly evaluate the changes.
It’s a constant battle. Follow the evidence.
In criminal justice, in policing, in law enforcement you have to rigorously apply that principle and keep on doing it. There is a tendency among all of us to grab onto the latest crime busting initiative - ‘public health approach’ is one that springs to mind. No. Coolly and dispassionately assess the benefits of a particular policy or programme and weigh those benefits against financial and other costs. I don’t think it happens enough.
So when I look back at that late night skirmish in Edmonton almost 40 years ago I reflect that in some ways we’re in a better place. We understand more about the traumatic effects of crime and that mental scars can be just as serious, if not more so, than the physical impact. And we have a tried and trusted mechanism in which victims and witnesses can provide information about what’s happened without disclosing who they are.
But do we fully understand what works best in preventing crime? Do we really have the evidence that imprisonment or longer sentences act as a deterrent? Are we really sure that the rehabilitation courses offenders are sent on help with rehabilitation? I think we’re in the foothills of finding out the answers to these questions. We need the evidence. And we need the evidence urgently.