Tackling crime – the speech I didn't get to give on being effective, not vindictive

I didn’t get called to speak during the Liberal Democrat conference debate on our new crime-fighting policy paper (details on the main party website), but it seems a shame to let my would-have-been speech go to waste – so here it is for the internet audience instead!

The bitter irony of the debates around crime in this country is that so often those policies presented as being tough on crime are also those that not only do the least to cut crime – but actually increase it.

Because often we are faced with this choice: do you wish to be vindictive about past crimes, or effective at avoiding future crimes?

Punishing for the sake of punishing may meet instinctive emotional repugnance at the people who carried out awful acts – but punishment that spirals out of control in a bidding war over who can be toughest just results in more reoffending and more crimes.

Let me explain: imagine before you someone who has committed a crime. Should they be jailed? If so – for how long? And how should they be treated in jail?

In ever-raising stakes bidding world of being tough on crime, the answers are always more jailings, longer sentences, worse conditions.

But what will happen to that person? For the very worst crimes – yes they will be locked up for the rest of their lives. But for the rest – at some point they’ll be back in our communities. And will they reoffend? If they are simply locked up and forgotten – so often the answer will be yes. And it will be scant consolation for their future victims to know they were heavily punished for a crime in the past.

So we need to be smart – not just tough – and be effective – not vindictive.

If your kids did something wrong and you locked them up in a room for a few years – do you think they would come out as develop, well-balanced, better behaved, sorry and repentant for their misdeeds – or would they be sullen, maladjusted and resentful and angry – with no new ways or means to deal with the pressures of life next time something tempted them from the straight and narrow?

The answer is to balance punishment with rehabilitation, to use jail where necessary and appropriate – but not to mindlessly send everyone into the universities of crime for any offence.

So – what is effective?

Community Justice Panels are effective. Chard Liberal Democrats pioneered them. Young people have to face up to the consequences of their actions and then make amends to the community. Guess what – it works! The re-offending rate is just 5%! Proof and pudding. Liberal Democrats want to establish community justice panels in every town in the country.

And then there is restorative justice. That’s where victims and offenders are brought together and the offender apologises to the victim. It does sound wet. But it ain’t wet. It works. Proof and pudding.

I visited Brixton Prison about 18 months ago where a criminal – a serious criminal who had served a couple of decades – had come back to talk to the assembled worthies about what worked. Even for him at that end of the criminal scale – he said being faced with what he had done got through to him in a way that nothing else ever had.

It’s kind of redemption – even for the non-religious. The need to apologise and make amends runs deep.

So – effective not vindictive.

And it’s not just a few future crimes we can prevent – because re-offending rates for people released from prison are shockingly high.

Around six in ten prisoners released are caught committing at least one offence in the subsequent two years.

Amongst those who steal from vehicles, the re-offending rate is around nine out of ten.

So tackle reoffending amongst those who already get into the legal and prison systems – and there’s a huge cut in crime to be had. And of course because they’re already in the systems, we have the advantage of knowing who they are and where they – at least on the days the Home Office hasn’t lost another bundle of prisoner data!

We can’t go back in time and undo a crime a criminal has committed, but if we stop them re-offending – then we have zipped forward in time and stopped a crime before it occurs.

It’s time to get real, stop the posturing, catch the criminals – change their behaviour – and so – cut crime.