I know it's probably not wise to take too much notice of what the Daily Mail says, but I'll make an exception today. The Mail is fulminating about so-called career criminals who have accumulated over 100 convictions and have not gone to jail. A recently retired magistrate adds his two-penneth complaining about 'do-goodery' and extolling the virtues of Michael Howards view that prison works.
Lets take the last point first - does prison work? The answer of course is yes and no. As Inspector Gadjet has previously noted on his blog, prison does indeed give the community protection for the period that an offender is removed from it. But what's the point of that if the underlying reasons for committing the offences are not dealt with or worse, if the offenders situation has deteriorated, for example through loss of accommodation and therefore re-offending is made more likely upon release? At the present time anyone serving less than 12 months gets no help from the probation service, unless they are under 21. It strikes me that this is not a very sophisticated way of dealing with the initial problem and in fact quite likely to make matters worse.
It's regrettable to hear a recently retired magistrate rubbishing 'do-goodery' and by extension I guess the probation service. Unfortunately I think this is one consequence of breaking the historic link between the Magistracy and probation. Through much of my career it was typical practice to meet members of the local bench at least every four months in order to discuss matters of mutual concern, present case studies, take part in joint sentencing exercises and inform magistrates of new initiatives. These were often lively affairs and well attended, and not just because I suspect they were regarded as contributing towards an on-going training requirement. Most importantly they served as a valuable conduit for understanding so that comments like those in today's Daily Mail would be less likely.
When there is any discussion of locking more people up, I think it is relevant to remind protagonists of this argument that Britain already has the highest rate of imprisonment of any other comparable European country. This begs two questions, why is this country so different and does it not indicate something is going seriously wrong with our current approach to the problem?
Over the years, I'm not sure I've ever met many 'career' criminals as a probation officer. On the other hand I've seen quite a few when watching tv programmes like 'Watchdog'. To me a career criminal is someone who makes a conscious, calculated decision to make a business out of crime, say 'ripping' people off, quite often vulnerable people, safe in the knowledge that apprehension will be most unlikely. Many are likely to be smart and middle class involved in financial fraud, in addition to the perhaps more stereotypical 'dodgy builder' types. Accumulating a lot of convictions does not make someone a career criminal. I've had quite a few elderly men who have very lengthy records and without exception they are sad, institutionalised individuals who find living in the community too frightening or difficult and so typically commit alcohol-related offences in order to return to a place where they feel more at home - prison. They are not career criminals in my book.
I suspect the Daily Mail is really talking about a relatively small, but significant group of prolific offenders. This group typically commit large numbers of offences within a short period of time and often have multiple problems that should have been addressed somewhat earlier. I guess this brings me into the realms of 'do-goodery'. For this group, custody may prove beneficial for some if all other avenues have been explored and they use the experience to gain qualifications and are able to deal with drug and alcohol issues. I've seen many young men changed for the good by YOI, but equally it can damage others.
The evidence shows that many just stop their chronic offending and grow out of it as part of the maturing process or by forming a relationship. On more than one occasion I've speculated that for some young men, the probation service might have more success if we operated a dating agency. I cannot overstate the dramatic effect a girlfriend can sometimes have on a young mans offending pattern. She often replaces the control previously exercised by mum and says 'you're not going out'. It might make a nice research project to compare this group with the ones on Prolific and other Priority Offender (PPO) initiatives run by the police.