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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 11:48 GMT 12:48 UK
Crime and criminal justice
This graph shows a drop in crime as found by the British Crime Survey
Both Labour and the Conservatives are making fighting crime a focal point of their election pitches - how bad is it in the UK, and what is being done to deal with it?


BACKGROUND

Crime and criminal justice has figured heavily throughout Labour's four years in power - and was a fundamental element of the 1997 election campaign.

At the time, Tony Blair told the nation that he would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".

Crime in 1997
70% of offences committed by small minority of young males
4-5% of victims suffer 50% of burglaries
Only 2% crimes result in conviction
(Source: Howard Journal of Criminal Justice)
Labour said it wanted to shift policy away from simply dealing with general sentencing issues towards modernising the apparatus of criminal justice.

They were keen to deal with young offending - the cause of much of the crime experienced by society and its victims.

However, the party has also presided over a rise in the prison population coupled with the introduction of what it says are stiffer penalties for some crimes.

Back in 1997, the party cited research which showed that most reported crimes are committed by males under the age of 25 who come from urban traditionally working-class backgrounds.

: FAST FACTS
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One official survey suggested that a life of crime starts early with 72% of excluded school pupils having admitted committing an offence.

There have been a number of other major strands to the crime debate since Labour came to power:

  • The drugs debate (see separate article)
  • Whether there was a role to be played in dealing with "social exclusion" which criminologists and politicians on the left generally view as being one of the most important factors in criminality.
  • The jailing of farmer Tony Martin for murdering a burglar in his home raised questions about the rights of the individual, victims, rural crime and the public's perception of threat.
  • Football-related hooliganism which threatened England's expulsion from Euro 2000, prompted demands for action to deal with the "yob culture".


    CRIME STATISTICS

    The UK has two measures of crime - Recorded Crime statistics (crimes reported to police) and the British Crime Survey.

    Recorded crime in England and Wales fell by 0.2% in the 12 months to September 2000. Of the 5.2m offences recorded, 83% were against property and 14% were crimes of violence.

    Labour is using these figures to show that crime has dropped by around 7% since 1997.

    However, the statistics show that there has been an 8% rise in reported violent crime with robbery up 21%.

    The British Crime Survey is generally judged to be more reliable because it involves the interviewing of 19,000 people about their actual experiences of crime, rather than what is reported to the police.

    The BCS found crime fell by 10% in England and Wales between 1997 and 1999. In the two years up to the last general election the BCS reported that crime fell by 15%.

    Prison population
    1995: 51,047
    1996: 55,281
    1997: 61,114
    1998: 65,299
    1999: 64,770
    (Source: Home Office)
    On violent crime, the survey found a overall 20% decrease between 1995 and 1999 - but found that there had been a 14% increase in robbery.

    Comparisons between the two sets of data are difficult but researchers believe that up to 40% of BCS-recorded crimes are not reported to the police.

    On violent crime, some criminologists argue that people are now prepared to report existing violent acts (such as by an abusive partner) when they would not have done so before.

    Secondly, they say that the sudden rise in mobile phone snatching - especially among younger people - has arguably skewed mugging figures in areas such as London.

    The BCS also found that two-thirds of those interviewed believed that crime had risen between 1997 and 1999 - and a third thought that it had "risen a lot".


    TARGETS AND STRATEGY

    The Home Office has crime reduction targets, they include cutting:

  • Car crime by 30% by 2004
  • Domestic burglary by 25% by 2005
  • City robberies by 14% by 2005
  • Young offender reconvictions by 5% by 2005

    Almost all of these types of crimes are committed by the same kind of young male offender, according to research.

    For instance, police say that if the right offenders are convicted, communities witness a dramatic drop in a particular crime, such as car break-ins.

    One of the most important thrusts of legislation since 1997 has been the restructuring of youth justice system.

    Firstly, the party's 1997 election campaign pledge card signalled the focus on youth crime by promising to cut the time from arrest to sentencing for young offenders from 142 days to 71 days.

    Labour's crime legislation
    1998 Crime and Disorder Act
    1999 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act
    2000 Criminal Justice and Court Services Act
    2001 Criminal Justice and Police Bill
    It currently stands at 94 days. The government insists that it would hit the target if the general election came at the end of a full five-year term.

    Other new measures have included child curfews enforceable by tagging, parenting orders and attempts to bring together different agencies, such as social services and the police, to take better charge of the attempted rehabilitation of a young offender.

    Much of this policy also draws from the establishment of a social exclusion unit at the Home Office.

    It seeks to devise policies that join up the work of different parts of government and society to improve urban areas, the opportunities for people within them and lessen the risk of crime.

    The government also followed previous Conservative policy of seeking to "design out" crime by funding an expansion in CCTV.

    In its 2000 Queen's Speech, the government put forward substantial increase in police powers - though opposition parties claim the legislation has more to do with electioneering than actually finding solutions.

    It has subsequently launched a 10-year crime strategy which it says aims to end the "revolving door" which sees offenders coming out just to commit more crimes.

    Policies include more education in jails and intensive supervision of ex-offenders to keep them on the straight and narrow.

    Opposition critics say that the beauty of this plan is that nobody will remember what was promised once the 10 years is up.

    This latest legislation includes more child curfews enforced by electronic tagging, allowing the police to retain DNA samples and fixed penalties for a range of offences including being drunk and abusive.

    Labour in government also pledged to reintroduce legislation limiting the right to trial by jury despite it being thrown out by the Lords in 2000.

    The party also set in train a full review of the court system in England and Wales which is due to report back this spring.

    On violent crime and robbery specifically, the home secretary announced strategies including seeking the co-operation of mobile phone companies to fit (more expensive) smart chips that would make the units inoperable once stolen.

    The National Children's Bureau and the Howard League for Penal Reform have both questioned whether tagging errant children does any good, warning that it only alienates vulnerable young people from figures of authority.

    Civil liberties groups have attacked some of the extensions of police powers as, at best, unnecessary and at worst an erosion of fundamental rights.

    VERDICTS ON LABOUR

    Multi-agency measures to deal with youth offending are still being tested and ministers stress that the benefits will only be seen in the long-term.

    William Hague for the Conservatives has attacked Labour's position as the worst examples of a "liberal elite" that has brought the criminal justice system "to its knees".

    He has advocated a wide range of alternative policies which he says are focused more sharply on sentencing and the rights of the victim.

    For their part, the Liberal Democrats have attacked Labour's "tough on the causes of crime" pledge as rhetoric.

    They say that Labour in government missed the opportunity to put in place the measures needed to get to the heart of offending.

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