Every now and then I come across a post on other blogs that particularly grabs my attention. In this instance it wasn't so much what the blogger said, as much as the resulting and mostly ill-tempered comment and discussion that got me thinking. On Sunday Bystander on the Magistrates Blog posted a piece entitled 'Biter is Bitten' which basically engaged in a bit of schadenfreude brought about by the arrest of five Sun journalists as part of the phone hacking scandal. Not particularly controversial I thought and a view with which I have some sympathy, but I was genuinely surprised by the passion and heat generated over sentencing policy and the state of the Criminal Justice System generally in the comments section.
At first I was keen to add a probation officers viewpoint, but to be honest the number of thorny issues raised were so great that I decided to reflect further and pen this post instead. To try and summarise, there was a view that the likes of The Sun and Daily Mail were merely voicing what ordinary people knew to be the truth about 'soft' judges and magistrates, who are just part of a liberal middle class elite and who feel they know better than ordinary folk about crime and punishment. The answer was obviously to lock more people up for longer and that in itself would be an effective deterrent. The tabloids were merely telling the truth and that was the reason they were hugely successful - unlike the quality dailies.
I'm sure I might have missed out some elements of the debate - but I think that's the gist. This sort of debate has raged over many years and unfortunately the probation viewpoint is either never voiced or hardly ever heard. This is a terrible shame and possibly connected to the fact that as a group we're pretty much publicity-shy, despite having been experts in the field for over a century. The absence of a clear voice and message has allowed successive governments of both political parties to seize the initiative and impose their half-baked populist sentencing ideas, the results of which of course we enjoy today.
It might be useful to look at crime through the analagy of health or indeed life itself. In effect it's all a game of chance, right from fertilisation of the egg through to the point at which our pre-determined genetic pre-disposition meets the effects of our lifestyle and death. We all know that choosing our parents carefully will in all probability be the single most important factor that determines our future prospects. Probation officers know only too well that the vast majority of their clients do not get a great start in life. That's a fact, but that's always been the case, so what's changed I hear you say? Drugs!
Over my career I can say without a shadow of doubt that the whole criminal landscape has changed beyond recognition due to the widespread and unstoppable use of narcotics. A vast amount of acquisitive crime is committed today in order to fund these insatiable habits and this simply wasn't the case when I started out. Just as increasing prison sentence lengths have no effect on deterrence, no matter how sustained the war on drugs becomes it will have absolutely no effect on drug usage. The tabloids don't agree of course - because they seemingly know better and are merely reflecting the views of the public - and therefore no politician dares speak the truth that the whole thing is a costly and futile charade. We must admit that our current drug policy is a disaster and treat it instead as a health issue with legal prescribing.
Over my entire career I have never been aware that criminal behaviour is significantly affected by the deterrent effect of sentencing. What does affect behaviour is much more concerned with the chances of getting caught. Just with smokers not being affected by gruesome photos on cigarette packets, offenders feel confident that they will evade detection. Each feels that there is good reason to believe that justice will not catch up with them. It's the old theory of partial random re-inforcement. But I can hear some people saying at least the public gets a break whilst the offenders are off the streets. Yes that's true, but firstly it's costly, secondly we imprison more people than ever in our history and thirdly what use is it if offenders are returned to society more damaged and less able to cope than when they went in? In the end the only real chance of stopping criminal behaviour is to effect a change in attitude and that takes skill, time and effort.
In terms of sentencing, it always amazes me when routinely there are examples quoted in the media of 'soft' sentencing, without full knowledge of the case. Probation Officers have to be experts in sentencing because they are often charged with advising sentencers based upon detailed assessments of each offenders background, attitude and environment. This information is normally confidential for sound professional reasons and unfortunately can sometimes compound the public's perception of a sentence being 'soft'.
All I can say is that in my experience, having sometimes sweated blood and tears over some Pre-Sentence Reports, I have more often been disappointed at my recommendation being ignored by imposition of a harsher sentence, than one being imposed that was more lenient. In such cases there will invariably have been factors that the public would not have been privvy to, that had a direct effect on offending behaviour and that could have been addressed more constructively.
Now the cynics will say that just shows that Probation Officers always 'down tariff' rather than 'up tariff' offenders. There did indeed used to be some truth in thinking that, but even so it ignores the fact that when we were rather more closely associated with sentencers than we are today, we had to maintain their confidence. So called 'concordance' rates were monitored enthusiastically both by individual officers and management and was the source of some pride. Somewhat ironically nowadays there is evidence to suggest that more-recently trained officers have a tendency to 'up tariff' offenders which I find a sad indictment on the changes imposed upon us over the last 10 to 15 years. In essence my message would be that the need to punish rather less and understand more has never been greater. I can't help but notice that that goes counter to current political thinking though.