What can we do about violent crime?
The shocking killing of Sir David Amess is a terrible reminder of how precarious and precious life is and how swiftly and brutally it can be taken away. It has rightly commanded national attention - and has already fuelled debate about whether as a society we have become less tolerant and more prone to resort to violence. However rare such terrible acts are, and they thankfully are rare, they generate alarm and confirm the view among some people of a deeper malaise.
There are no definitive figures pointing to a surge in violent crime, but reports from police indicate that with the re-opening of pubs and clubs, with the night-time economy revitalised, with people able to meet in person instead of online, after the removal of coronavirus restrictions, forces are becoming very stretched. In the seven days before Sir David's death, at least seven other murder investigations were launched across the UK: in Ayrshire, Bradford, Bristol, County Londonderry, Swindon and two in London.
The Government published a strategy to tackle violent crime in England and Wales in 2018, which I have written about before; in July, Boris Johnson issued his own blueprint, the Beating Crime Plan, with a welcome emphasis on early intervention and tighter supervision of offenders. The other key element of the Prime Minister's approach is tougher sentencing, which, along with the recruitment of more police officers, is expected to contribute to a rise of around 20,000 in the prison population over the next five years. That forecast is the main reason why ministers have embarked on the most ambitious prison building programme in recent history, with the promise of an extra 18,000 places, the vast majority of which will be in the men's estate.
Whether we should be adding to the jail population is a discussion for another day, though modern prisons are infinitely preferable to the Victorian institutions still found in some of our biggest cities. Of more concern is what the extra prisoners will be doing while they're locked up, to make them less likely to reoffend when they're released, which all but a small number eventually will be. That is of particular relevance when it comes to those convicted of violent crimes, as the consequences of their reoffending tend to be so much more serious. There are currently over 28,000 inmates serving jail terms for violent offences, robbery or possession of weapons, 44% of all sentenced prisoners.
The 'Beating Crime Plan' says the Government aims to put in place the "foundations" prisoners need to steer them away from crime on release: stable accommodation, a job and for those with drug or alcohol problems, access to treatment. (I would add to that the importance of having family ties and a support network). But at present a huge amount of effort goes in to ensuring prisoners are sent on courses to address their offending behaviour; for those who have to satisfy the Parole Board that they can be safely let out, a record of attendance is all but essential.
How many of the courses really work, though, is a moot point. Last week, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) published fresh analysis about a programme targeted at prisoners jailed for violent crime; the main findings, first disclosed in January, do not make for comfortable reading.
The scheme, known as 'Resolve', uses cognitive behavioural therapy in an attempt to reduce violence in men assessed as posing a 'medium risk' of harm. According to the MoJ, it "targets offenders' patterns of anti-social thinking and beliefs that support violence. The programme includes group and individual sessions and is suitable for offenders with a history of reactive or instrumental violence."
But Resolve doesn't appear to be very effective. The study compared the impact of the scheme on 2,500 prisoners over a two-year follow up period with inmates who hadn't been on the programme. Although overall reoffending rates of those who'd taken part in Resolve were lower, in terms of violent crimes - which the scheme is designed to reduce - the analysis showed no "statistically significant effect".
Resolve is not the only prisoner rehabilitation programme to have failed to live up to its name. Remember the long-running and highly-praised Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP)? In 2017, it was scrapped after research concluded those who'd participated were more likely to reoffend than those who hadn't. An initial study, suggesting the SOTP was counter-productive, had been completed five years earlier - but the MoJ kept quiet about it and the scheme was allowed to continue.
What's just as worrying as programmes that aren't achieving their objectives are those which are being used without having been fully tested. In July 2019, in response to an investigation by Transform Justice the MoJ revealed that 12 interventions, approved for use in custody, had not been evaluated as to their impact. Among them were the 'Alcohol Related Violence' programme, which the MoJ said was due to be withdrawn by March 2020 and 'Building Better Relationships', which targets male perpetrators of domestic violence. The schemes are assessed by experts on the Correctional Services Accreditation and Advice Panel, which, according to the MoJ, draws on the "most recent national and international evidence base". That is not the same, however, as an evaluation of the programme as it has been delivered in prisons in England and Wales.
Of course, there are real practical problems about assessing the impact on reoffending of some of the programmes. Where they involve only a small number of offenders or where prisoners are serving long sentences it takes time to establish a sufficient pool of people for a meaningful analysis. Officials might claim that in the absence of such definitive evidence it is better to try out the programme rather than have nothing at all.
I would argue, however, that the results of the Resolve evaluation must act as a wake-up call. We have to open and honest about what works, what doesn't work and what might not work in cutting violent crime among released prisoners. The only glimmer of light from Resolve was that it produced better results where "programme integrity was broadly maintained" - in other words, when practitioners adhered to guidelines on how the interventions should be delivered.
It suggests to me that the Ministry of Justice has to move to an approach based on quality not quantity. Better to have 200 rehabilitation courses properly planned and expertly conducted than 2000 courses where the content and delivery is patchy. With a large anticipated increase in the number of prisoners convicted of violence, on top of those already behind bars, that will present significant challenges. But we can no longer pretend that simply sending violent offenders on a course - box ticked, hope for the best - will do the trick. It will not. We owe it to the memory of Sir David Amess and other victims of violent crime to come up with something better.