If we want an effective penal system, we should copy Hawaii
PUBLISHED June 16, 2012
Liz Calderbank, chief inspector of probation, performed a very useful service last week by pointing out just how useless the present system of tagging criminals is. Wearing an electronic tag is supposed to mean that an offender is confined to his home for 12 hours a day. But in nearly 60 per cent of the cases where a court orders a criminal to wear a tag, it has no effect at all. The offender can go about his usual criminal business just as if had he received no sanction from the courts. And when probation officers discover that he is in "breach" of the court order, nothing happens. As a consequence, tagged criminals learn one lesson: the law is to be laughed at rather than feared.
Miss Calderbank made a number of suggestions as to how the system could be improved. But the last inspector's report on the tagging system, in 2008, made the same criticisms and some of the same suggestions. Nothing changed. The use of tagging has nearly doubled since then, and now consumes around 10 per cent of the total probation budget. We've known for years that it doesn't inhibit or deter criminals - and yet the Government's only response has been to increase its use.
So what's the alternative? The Government desperately needs something that will be cheap - which rules out greater use of imprisonment. Larry Sherman, a professor of criminology at Cambridge, thinks he has the answer. In a report for the think tank Civitas, he cites a scheme in Hawaii which cut by half the rate at which drug addicts committed offences.
The programme offered addicts an alternative to prosecution: contacting a probation officer every day, who would administer, at random intervals, a drug test. Failing the test the first time led to an immediate, relatively slight, penalty, such as a night in jail. A second failure would lead to two nights in jail… and so on, on an escalating scale.
The threat of prosecution was left hanging over the addict. Prof Sherman says that the low-level, but immediate, sanctions were far more effective than taking the offender to court. The key to the scheme's success is that it establishes an immediate connection between crime and punishment. Dispensing with a trial means that the gap between the two is eliminated. And it has the added benefit that the costs are about half those of prosecution.
Prof Sherman is piloting a wider version of the Hawaiian system for the UK. He wants to diminish the number of low-level offenders sent to prison, and concentrate on locking up violent criminals. He has developed a computer program that predicts, based on the individual's criminal record, how likely it is that he will commit a violent offence in the future - and says its predictions are 97 per cent accurate. He argues that if his system were used, the offenders who needed to be locked up to protect the public could be separated from the others, who would be offered the alternative of not being prosecuted, provided they agreed to attend standard probation courses, such as addiction treatment or anger management.
Prof Sherman may well be right about the merits of his scheme. But it is worth sounding a couple of cautionary notes. One is that it will mean a fundamental change to the justice system, which is based on punishing people for what they have done, not for what they might do. The other is that the agency that will be required to implement Prof Sherman's scheme will be the police. But the police and this Government do not get on.
The nomination of Tom Winsor - a man with no policing experience, who excoriated the service in his report - as the chief inspector of constabulary, has enraged the force. Police officers are unlikely to co-operate with any new government initiative, let alone one that involves them in far more work and responsibility. That may doom Prof Sherman's system in practice, however attractive it is in theory.