These are curious times for criminal justice. The official rate of crime, as measured by the British Crime Survey, stood at nearly 20 million incidents in 1995. Ten years on the comparable figure is just under 11 million, a near 50 per cent decline in a decade.
Meanwhile, those agencies that make up the so-called 'criminal justice system' face regular attack and criticism, much of it from government ministers. In January this year the prime minister argued that 'traditional' criminal justice processes were 'utterly useless' for getting 'on top of twenty-first century crime'. A few months later he told the Observer newspaper that these 'traditional' criminal justice processes had 'failed. They are leaving the innocent unprotected and the guilty unpunished.'
One of John Reid's first public acts as incoming home secretary was to tell the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that the Home Office was 'dysfunctional'. In July this year he published yet another action plan aimed at improving the performance of the criminal justice system.
What is going on? Why, during a period of rapidly falling official crime levels is criminal justice apparently mired in almost permanent crisis? Are ministers right about criminal justice failure? If so, what are the implications for a progressive political programme?
Understanding criminal justice failure
The government's analysis of criminal justice failure is at heart very simple. It was first set out in the 2001 white paper Criminal Justice: the way ahead (Home Office, 2001). The basic problem, according to this document, is that crime rates took a sharp upward turn from the early 1980s, while the criminal justice system treaded water. During these years, the criminal justice system had 'not kept pace with the growth in crime nor with new types of crime and criminality'. This lack of performance itself contributed to the development of a vicious circle. There were 'many reasons' for the growth in crime, but 'one important underlying factor' was the fact that the criminal justice system had 'not been effective enough in dealing with crime or offenders'.
The government claims on criminal justice performance are based on a comparison between the number of alleged crimes recorded by the police and the number of successful convictions. In 1980, the police recorded six alleged crimes for every one successful conviction. Twenty years on they recorded around eleven alleged offences for every successful conviction. Over a twenty-year period the conviction rate apparently declined quite significantly.
But police-recorded offence data is precisely that: details of alleged crime incidents catalogued by the police. And it is only that. It is an elementary error, though one regularly made, to assume that such data offers a satisfactory insight into the scale and scope of crime in the real world. Let us see what happens if we compare convictions against crime measured by the British Crime Survey, the government's preferred means of quantifying crime levels.
In 1981, the first year for which British Crime Survey data is available, around one individual was successfully convicted for every twenty-five offences estimated by the British Crime Survey. By 2000 around one individual was convicted for every thirty offences, as was the case in 2003-4. Criminal justice was about as ineffective at successfully resolving suspected offences in 1981 as it was nearly twenty years later, and as it is now.
Criminal justice failure, in other words, is a lot worse than the government's own pessimistic analysis suggests once comparisons with the British Crime Survey are made. But then the British Crime Survey itself only measures a fraction of all offences. It ignores white collar crime, for instance, and underestimates offences such as domestic violence. It also does not cover a number of serious crimes of violence such as sexual assault, child abuse and homicide. All of these offences involve significant harm or trauma to those who experience them. How comprehensively does the criminal justice system deal with them?