Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 113)



  Q100  Dr Whitehead: A question for Professor McGuire. You have written very extensively on the value of evidence-based practice in interventions for offenders. How do you think the Ministry of Justice is doing as far as progressing implementation of its effective practice and how do you think it stands alongside what you have written on the matter?

  Professor McGuire: I have a sense that it has lost some momentum, that the policy has been superseded by concern about investment in imprisonment, and so on, and perhaps an over-emphasis on managerial structures at the expense of the face-to-face content of work that people working directly with offenders have to do and perhaps not enough emphasis on the skills development, the education, the dissemination of knowledge concerning what will be more likely to be effective. I think it is rather unfortunate that that momentum, which I think in fact was reasonable, in fact probably accelerated at too speedy a pace at one stage and perhaps some of the findings that were disappointing that came from it were a function of that, although I cannot prove that—that is a hypothesis—but perhaps that caused some loss of enthusiasm for it in senior decision-makers. At the moment I feel as if there is a bit of a vacuum there perhaps, or that it has lost its strength.

  Q101  Dr Whitehead: So you might say the evidence of evidence-based policy proved to be uncomfortable.

  Professor McGuire: It is very difficult to say if it was uncomfortable. I think some parts of it are probably uncomfortable. If you look at a large report written a few years ago for the Solicitor General, Canada, about the relationship between lengths of prison sentences and the likelihood of recidivism, taking other factors out of the equation such as risk levels and so on, you probably would not be building more prisons. That would be uncomfortable for many people, I think.

  Q102  Dr Whitehead: I was sort of coming to that in terms of thinking about the current evidence-base specifically for reducing reoffending. Do you think there are particular weaknesses in that evidence base and, bearing in mind the apparent lack of information and evidence as far as NOMS is concerned on, for example, the cost of community orders and, indeed, even the completion of sentences, do you think that perhaps skews the evidence-base towards certain outcomes?

  Professor McGuire: I think it probably does. I think there is a very large evidence-base. Unfortunately, the bulk of it is North American, and the transfer from science to practice is difficult enough without there also being an international movement of information to take place. There are many weaknesses in that evidence, many gaps in it, the quality of some of the research is not good, but perhaps the biggest weakness is the one that was touched on when Dr Chitty was giving evidence about transfer of information to practice, and there are major hurdles, as David has just said, in how one does that and the complexity of that in large organisations, the aims of which are to serve other public goods, as it were, and have specific notions about how precisely to achieve that. So I think there are large gaps there, and there are lots of specific gaps, which are too numerous to mention, here of things that we do not know about implementing—the better way to monitor and deliver domestic violence interventions, for example: that is just one of the many dozens of questions that could be asked—so I think there is an underinvestment in research in this area. You would expect an academic to say that, would you not, but I think it is quite major if you compare it with some of the other areas of inquiry that inform government policy.

  Q103  Dr Whitehead: In terms of your view of what efforts are being made to put together the two issues on evidence-based and effective practice within the Department, what is your view on what efforts are being made, or do you think there are not any efforts?

  Professor McGuire: I cannot claim to be very familiar with such efforts as are taking place at the moment. I think there is a large emphasis on econometric models for modelling the aggregate offending in the community using that effort to predict aggregate needs for certain kinds of services. I think it is somewhat atheoretical. We do not really understand why, what are the mechanisms, the functions, the relationships between the different ingredients that contribute to the dependent variable, the amount of crime, the number of prison places that we will need. It seems to me that an over-emphasis on an econometric approach has been done at the expense of looking in more detail at the motivations, the factors that influence different patterns of offending in different places at different times. Perhaps the localisation of feedback information that has been discussed by Dr Chitty will be a great advantage in trying to enable local decision-makers to think about that, guided by government policy, of course.

  Q104  Mr Heath: I want to carry on the theme of effectiveness and how we measure it. Let me mark my own card, as it were. I am convinced that the purpose of this policy should be to stop crime, to be effective in reducing recidivism, and I am also not a great fan of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which I tried very hard to prevent reaching the statute book, but it set out various purposes for sentencing and I am just wondering, both of you, what your views are on how you can reconcile those quite different purposes into a model, a measurement of effectiveness which very often will take a different complexion over what purpose you are using at any given time?

  David Faulkner: I think with difficulty is the first answer. Some of them are instrumental aims about reducing reoffending, and then there is punishment, which is declaratory with a moral background, and it is a different kind of thing. I think if there was an attempt seriously to monitor the effectiveness of sentencing against those aims, you would have to identify the aim which was being sought in the particular sentence and then decide on the criteria you were going to use for that aim, but to put them altogether in one list and one basket, I do not think you can measure the effectiveness without disaggregating it in some way.

  Q105  Mr Heath: Would you agree, Professor McGuire?

  Professor McGuire: Yes, I think there are lots of different ways to measure the impact of an intervention. The police do collect many kinds of data about how crime moves around and the pattern of it over time, and some projects have been evaluated in that way rather than by looking at the reoffending rates of individual offenders; but we have to do that too, and we should also look at severity, density, the spacing of that over time and the changing nature of different kinds of offending and how that relates to the individual life course. Obviously, that would involve quite a large amount of investment in additional ways of collecting information, and we know that, unfortunately, when large-scale new methodologies are introduced into services for collecting information, as has happened in the Probation Service, the quality and constancy of the information is not all that high. In research that I have been involved in we found that there was lots of missing data. So the change of policy on that front needs to be accompanied by adequate resourcing to ensure that the information that you are asking for would actually be there at the end of the day.

  Q106  Mr Heath: But even with that investment, is it possible to reconcile those totally disparate objectives into a single measure of success?

  Professor McGuire: In the end, I agree with the measure that you are suggesting, which is trying to reduce crime. The specific ways in which we can measure that are quite various, but in the end they all do come to the same thing. I think it is perfectly possible to reconcile those things.

  Q107  Mr Heath: Let me throw in another potential measure which in other areas of government policy would be an important driver, and that is the cost-effectiveness of the measure that is in place. Should that be a driver for criminal justice policy, or is it an irrelevancy in comparison with the other more important aspects which you have just described?

  Professor McGuire: No, I think it should be a driver. I accept that there is, as it were, a minimal amount of investment that we cannot go below if we are to keep people in secure accommodation and restrain them from causing harm to others, and in the end there is a moral imperative to that which society probably has not got a choice about, but there is a copious amount of information, just as there is on the outcomes of so-called "what works" type policies, on benefit and cost analysis too. Again, unfortunately, much of it is North American, but it shows very large returns on investment of good intervention services, per capita savings of many thousands of US dollars for a range of things for both young offenders and for adults and it is entirely possible to get good returns if you look at it in the best benefit cost way. One of the implications of that would be transferring net resources from custody to the community where you would probably see better returns on criminal justice investment.

  Q108  Mr Heath: Is that North American research material relevant, do you think, to the British experience?

  Professor McGuire: I think it is. We use some of the interventions that are costed within it in some of our services in England and Wales.

  Q109  Chairman: Do you think the prospects for the measures such as you have just described are inhibited by a system in which the process of deciding and, therefore, allocating different resources is so divided between those who sentence, those who build prisons and make decisions to build prisons and those who are responsible for services in the community? Have we got a decision-making structure which is incapable of deciding whether or not that transfer should take place?

  Professor McGuire: To some extent that is true. I think it has become very disparate and there are large discrepancies in knowledge and the practice gaps between the agencies that are responsible for the different components of that. I think it is very hard to hold it together, and perhaps one of the tasks of NOMS is to look more closely at that, but, if I can introduce a slightly different idea, the notion of therapeutic jurisprudence, which many people in the legal profession are very keen on, that would give courts a different relationship, both with offenders and with the agencies that are providing services and supervision to offenders, thereby, if you like, giving a feedback of information that would enable magistrates and judges to be better informed about the decisions they had made, the impact of those decisions locally and on individuals that they had sentenced.

  Q110  Alun Michael: It relates very much to what you have just been talking about in terms of who uses the evidence for what policy-making purposes. We have heard a suggestion that the relationship between internal and external research on crime policy has broken down. Do you think that is the case? What should the relationship between internal and external evidence be and how could its effectiveness perhaps be strengthened?

  David Faulkner: I think the relationship at present is not very good. Professor McGuire has made the distinction between the econometric research, which is where most Government effort is going at present either internally or directly funded, and the research which is being done by some of my own colleagues in Oxford on relationships and motivation where there is good work. Again there are gaps and weaknesses in the evidence but it is important work with some real pointers for policy which are not at this stage being brought into the Government's approach to dealing with offenders. Again, I am fairly optimistic that at least there are people within the Department of Justice who are looking at this and seeing the importance of that motivational work alongside the econometric work that is already taking place. Another thing which does worry me and does rather depress me is that many academics are not interested in working with policy or Government but are more interested in pursuing their theories and developing notions of punishment or security or whatever. That is important stuff but they do not really want to engage with policy on that and they do not get much encouragement, and I would like to see a better relationship in that sort of field, and probably it applies to areas other than criminal justice.

  Q111  Chairman: That is what Lord Nuffield said when he founded Nuffield College.

  Professor McGuire: I think there have been problems in that area. I am aware of a number of conflicts which I do not think can be discussed here but I know—

  Q112  Alun Michael: It is starting to get interesting!

  Professor McGuire: To some extent my own experience was a sense of projects being micro-managed and not enough credibility being given to researchers who had experience and who could, as it were, do the work. I think the group I was part of became curious as to why that was the case and were frankly puzzled by it, because there was not anything we were doing which was in any way going to embarrass anyone. So there are problems. I am aware, having spoken to a number of criminology colleagues, that there have also been some disagreements. I think that could do with some healing, could do with some improvement.

  Q113  Alun Michael: What is the answer to that? Is it some sort of independent research unit informing policy, or is it mediation between policymakers, who clearly want information now but can help to inform policy, and researchers who, as David Faulkner suggested, perhaps are taking a more philosophical view of their research? How can we improve the quality of the way in which policy is informed?

  Professor McGuire: I think it would be good if RDS was more independent but the Government does need its own research unit and RDS produces fantastic research and it is extremely highly regarded all over the world and is the biggest unit of its kind almost anywhere, perhaps apart from the National Institute of Justice in Washington. But because it is policy driven I think sometimes that does create some friction with independent academics.

  David Faulkner: I think more opportunities for people just to talk to each other and be encouraged to talk to each other and not have their conferences in isolation with nobody coming to each other's meetings and things like that, would be a good start.

  Alun Michael: Like the role of the Committee, I think.

  Chairman: Indeed. That is a positive note to end on. Thank you very much indeed. The Committee will continue in private session.

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