The riddle of reoffending rates

By Guest contributor 20 May 2014

Adam Moll is Business Development Director at Safe Ground. He will be talking about the riddle of reoffending rates and how the charity has overcome barriers to accessing criminal justice data at NPC’s upcoming conference, How to measure outcomes: practical tips & tools. 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published the results of the latest Crime Survey of England and Wales, figures that will profoundly disappoint  the ‘outraged from Tunbridge Wells’ brigade. Crime, it transpires, has fallen a whopping fifteen per cent in the last twelve months alone and stands at its lowest level since the survey began 33 years ago.

Unsurprisingly, this announcement was music to the Coalition’s ears. ‘Crime has fallen under this coalition government by more than ten per cent. The evidence is clear: police reform is working!’, trumpeted crime prevention minister Norman Baker. Yet his analysis conveniently omitted a longer-term trend that some might consider relevant.

Both police and ONS data clearly show that crime has been falling steadily since 1995. Falling steadily irrespective of government or their policies. And falling steadily across most of Europe and in the United States.

But if Ministers’ blue-sky, strategic  thinking isn’t having an effect, what else could it be? It’s the economy, stupid. Except that it isn’t. Criminologists worldwide braced themselves for a steep rise in criminal activity after the crash of 2008. However, with the exception of a small increase in shoplifting, we are still waiting for the crime wave.

Academics across the globe have developed competing theories to explain this phenomenon, from the ‘greying’ of the Western world to changes in reporting procedures, from the decline in crack cocaine consumption to the hugely controversial hypothesis that crime had fallen in the U.S. as a direct result of the legalisation of abortion—the argument being that many would-be criminals (ie, poor people) were simply no longer being born.

Each of these arguments has been fairly comprehensively dismantled, and the accepted conclusion is that we really don’t know why crime continues to fall.

All of which raises the question: can anything really claim to impact on crime? The criminal justice system is gearing up to enter a brave, new world in which service providers will be judged, not to mention paid, on their success in reducing reoffending. Transforming Rehabilitation, the government’s flagship programme of reforms to prisons and probation, will focus on ‘what works’ as it relentlessly strives to bring down ‘unacceptably high’ reoffending rates.

To help prepare us for this shift, the Ministry of Justice launched the Justice Data Lab, advocated for by NPC, which enables charities (and other providers) to compare the reoffending rates of their service users with those of a matched control group of ‘similar’ offenders.

Safe Ground was one of the very first organisations to pilot the service. Our results for several cohorts of Family Man graduates were extremely positive, if just short of achieving the holy grail of statistical significance, and justified the risk we took as an organisation as we sought to add to our diverse evidence base and continue to position ourselves as a rigorously, robust, self-scrutinising organisation.

Except, here’s our little secret: while we can be fairly confident, through our theory of change and our evidence base, that Family Man has an impact on reoffending, we can never really be certain. After all, how can we possibly say it wasn’t the housing service, the substance misuse agency or simply the belief of a friend or family member that really made the difference?

It’s likely that it’s both a combination of all these services and simultaneously none of them.

Part of our Model of Change and our whole design for both the organisation and our practice, is understanding  that perhaps all we can do is try to enable as many positive elements to be present at the same time to maximise the potential for development and growth.

If the new landscape can facilitate a genuinely coordinated approach that offers each person in prison or on probation the opportunity to access the support they need to take ownership of their life, then we could take a huge step towards a more effective criminal justice system. If we focus relentlessly on the numbers and who takes the credit or blame, we risk losing sight of our values in a forest of deceptive statistics.