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Monday, November 4, 2013

Enough with the politicized knee-jerk response to selective interpretation of Youth Offending Statistics.

 According to David Barrett, who is a Home Office Correspondent for The Telegraph Newspaper, the “proportion of young offenders committing new crimes reached a 10-year high” (October 31, 2013)

 Telegraph Article
Mr. Barrett is correct when he reports that recently published data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has identified a 2% increase in re-offending rates since 2000 leading to the highest percentage of offenders re-offending. The response from the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, is that the 2% increase is evidence that his “payment by results” reform proposals should be taken into serious consideration. This reform will create contracts with private companies and charities who will work with less serious offenders. These companies will only be paid in full if they achieve the targets set to reduce re-offending. 

What Mr. Barrett and Mr. Grayling are neglecting to mention, is the fact that the overall youth offending and custody rates are currently at an all-time low. With such a small youth offending cohort, it is not surprising that the percentage of re-offending rates has increased slightly. It could be argued that those who are still in the system are young offenders who are considered the most serious and challenging; thus, we would predict they would be the most likely to re-offend. Simply put, if your cohort has reduced and primarily includes only serious and violent offenders,  your statistics of re-offending will naturally increase. The fact that they have only increased by 2% is actually a positive given the offending nature of those currently involved in the youth justice services.

Taking a closer look at the statistics provided by the MoJ, it was reported that overall there were 137,335 proven offences by young people in 2011/12, which is a decrease of 22% from 2010/11 and a decrease of 47% since 2001/02. This overall reduction includes a reduction in criminal damage (-28%), public order (-27%), theft and handling (-23%), and violence against the person (-22%). Furthermore, while the rates of re-offending has increased 2% since 2000, the rates of 'First Time Entrants' (FTEs - first reprimand, warning, caution or court conviction) has fallen 20% since 2010/11 and an impressive 59% since 2001/02. 

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With regards to the total number of young people receiving sentences, there were 66,430 in 2011/12 which is another reduction of 22% since 2010/11 and 48% since 2008/09. This decrease is the result in the fall of FTEs.

As proposed above, while the overall number of young people involved in the justice system has fallen, those who are involved could be identified as more serious and challenging offenders. In 2011/12, the majority of proven offences were committed by young people aged 15+, with only 25% committed by those aged 10-14. However, this year is the first time in 10 years that the average custody population has fallen below 2,000 (1,963) with a dramatic 30% reduction since 2001/02 (2,801). Although violence against the person has decreased by 22% (as stated above), it is one of the most common offence types amongst young offenders in custody, supporting the argument that the current cohort of young offenders are the offenders who would be considered the most challenging.  
(click to enlarge image)

The breakdown of primary offence types indicates a high proportion of serious and violent offences. This year, 27% of young people were in custody for robbery offences, and 21% for violence against the person. Again, supporting the argument that the current population now consists of young offenders who are most serious and challenging which would increase the statistics of re-offending; not because of the failure of the justice system. In fact, based on the significant decreases in overall offending and custody rates, it could be argued that the current system is doing exactly what it is meant to do.

Overall, the politicized statement given in the above article is questionable given the fact that “in 2000, there were 139,326 young people that formed the re-offending cohort, in 2010/11 the size of the re-offending cohort had fallen 37% to 88,357...this suggest that young offending teams are working with a smaller but generally more prolific cohort” (MoJ, 2013). Making these generalized statements that “re-offending is the highest it’s been in a decade” and that we need to seriously consider “payment by result” rehabilitation methods is a very narrow minded response to the published statistics and needs further investigation. This type of politicized response is not taking into consideration the demographics and risk-factors of those who are not included in the small but serious offending cohorts. Enough with the politicized knee-jerk response to selective interpretation of Youth Offending Statistics. 

A. Neaverson 

Monday, April 8, 2013

“It’s not long enough” – Mick Philpott, Sentencing Policy, and Public Criminology - Craig Harper

“It’s not long enough” – Mick Philpott, Sentencing Policy, and Public Criminology


Last week saw the sentencing of Derby man Mick Philpott, his wife Mairead, and friend Paul Mosley for the manslaughter of the Philpott’s six children in a house fire last May.  The story has naturally captured the public’s imagination and bought to the fore several debates about the UK’s approach to sentencing and the Welfare State.  In this post, I try to unpack some of the pertinent issue and address some of the misconceptions being reinforced by recent press reporting of this case.

The Manslaughter of Six Innocent Children

Mick Philpott’s living arrangements – unemployed and living with two different women, along with 11 children – have been widely publicised and commented on.  His wife, Mairead, and his lover Lisa Willis, took it in turns to sleep with him in their caravan on alternate nights, and this was covered in a 2007 edition of The Jeremy Kyle Show – a ‘reality TV’ programme that is tantamount to human bear-baiting, designed to put some of Britain’s most desperate people on television, playing out their out-of-control lives for the satisfaction and pleasure of those in more fortunate, if not perfect, positions.

When Lisa Willis left the home last February, Mick Philpott sought to reclaim her presence (and her child benefit money) through a host of different strategies, such as “sweet talking … cajoling … and bullying”, according the Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s sentencing remarks.  When she didn’t he hatched a wicked plan in order to blame her for a crime she didn’t commit – that of arson against her former family home, such that she would be prosecuted and Mick would obtain custody of the five children with whom Lisa left.

Mick Philpott was responsible for dousing his hallway in petrol and setting it alight.  The Crown accepted that he had not intended to kill his children, or even to cause them significant physical harm, and subsequently charged the three co-defendants with manslaughter as opposed to murder, with the assertion being that Mr Philpott had planned to enter the house, rescue the children, and be considered a local hero.  This unfortunately went horribly wrong, no rescue attempt was possible, and the six children inside tragically died.

Sentencing policy

Many people have commented on the sentence being handed down to these offenders – particularly the one given to Mick Philpott.  The sentences passed were as follows:
  • Mick Philpott – Life imprisonment with a minimum term of 15 years
  • Mairead Philpott – 17 years imprisonment
  • Paul Mosley – 17 years imprisonment

These sentences, when set against the context of the unlawful killing of six innocent children, have been described as too lenient by some members of the public, with others on the social networking site Twitter calling for a reintroduction of capital punishment for child killers. 

However, it should be noted that the judge, Mrs Justice Thirlwall, passed the maximum sentence possible for manslaughter.  Life imprisonment is the most severe punishment available for this index offence and, in setting the minimum tariff to be served by Mick Philpott, she stated:

The law requires me to impose a period of years that you will serve before you are considered for parole. To reach that period I must identify the determinate sentence you would have served had I not imposed a life sentence. The determinate sentence would have been one of 30 years’ imprisonment. I am required by parliament to halve that to reflect that were this a determinate sentence you would serve only half. The minimum period you must therefore serve before you are considered for parole is one of 15 years. From that I deduct 307 days to reflect the time you have already served on remand to give a term of 14 years and 58 days. Whether or not you are ever released will be a matter for the parole board.

Whole-life sentences, whereby “life means life” and there is no possibility for parole, is one option being mooted as a compromise between life sentences and the death penalty.  This case is certainly one that shakes my own personal beliefs, but I reassert that the idea of whole-life tariffs raise some serious concerns.  My view of prisons is that they should be fundamentally places for reformation and rehabilitation.  I have written previously that only the most dangerous criminals should be given prison terms (a theory supported by the risk-need-responsivity model of offender rehabilitation) – and that it is only by doing this that you can focus on doing intensive therapeutic work without passing on “tricks of the trade” to lesser criminals, such as those with acquisitive or public order offences.

Politically, though, it is wise for the Government to continue the trend of increasing the number of prisoners serving long or whole-life sentences.  This satisfies a certain Lombrosian culture that seems to fester in the vast majority of criminal justice rhetoric in the UK, and the concept of whole-life sentences seems to support this ideology by suggesting that some violent offenders are beyond help.

Another important point to raise is that, if a prisoner knows there is no chance of release, what do they have to lose?  They may as well behave however they like, and, with few opportunities for rehabilitation (why waste money of offending behaviour programmes on those beyond help?), prisoners on whole-life sentences have the perfect excuse to take their frustrations out on other inmates, or indeed police officers.  The press would no doubt report these incidents as ‘proof’ that these “beasts” should be locked up for the rest of their days – but they actually contribute to these events.

There have also been complaints about the fact that, if their sentences run as planned, Mairead Philpott and Paul Mosley will be “out in 8 years”.  Whilst it is true that these two will be released from prison-based custody at the half-way point of their respective 17 year sentences, it is not the case that they will be completely free, as some media outlets and commentators would lead you to believe.  Any offender that is released prior to the end of their allotted tariff  must serve up until the end of their sentence on licence – where they are still subject to strict sanctions which, if broken, could still lead the to be recalled to prison.  This licence period lasts until the end of the originally passed sentence (or for life, in the case of a life sentenced prisoner), and is accompanied by a variety of restrictions, including curfews and electronic tagging.  To suggest that those on licence are as free as the rest of us is a misleading fallacy.


All in all, I feel that the sentences passed are fair, and take into account the varying factors relating to each individual defendant.  Mick Philpott is clearly a controlling and callous individual with his own self-interest at the heart of everything he does, and the fact that he has received the maximum possible sentence for his actions is absolutely right. 

My only hope is that those involved in criminology and criminal justice engage better with the public and the media to allow for more balanced, evidence-based, and factual accounts of the sentencing process to be produced.

Craig Harper is a postgraduate student of forensic psychology based at the University of Lincoln, UK.  His research interests lie in desistance from crime, offender reintegration and public criminology.

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