Saturday, 12 December 2009

Crime, Justice, and Common Sense

A while ago I posted on the perverse and inconsistent reasoning behind various forms of taxation. I pointed out that there were small taxes that were explicitly intended to affect behaviour, whereas other taxes - orders of magnitude larger - were assumed to be effective because they would not affect behaviour. Today, it is the turn of the criminal justice system.

Now, I'll accept that I am on shakier ground on this subject. I have little personal experience of crime and the criminal lifestyle, and no direct personal experience of the criminal justice system (well, not yet). I do however have experience of temptation and of living a life in which temptation is resisted, and criminality is avoided. I will therefore claim that as my qualification to write, and sally forth - blissfully exhibiting my naivety.

In theory, if someone commits a crime then we catch them, convict them, and sentence them. The purposes of sentencing are, of course, those of prevention, retribution, rehabilitation and deterrence. Arguably, the most important of those is rehabilitation - the process of making it less likely that the criminal will re-offend once the sentence is complete. For prison sentences, we have a system in which the second half of the sentence is almost always not served, the prisoner being released on parole after demonstrating that he or she is no longer a threat to the community.

We also have the Criminal Records Bureau (the "CRB"). This acts to stop known offenders from taking up posts where their record of criminality indicates that they may pose a threat to the community if they take up the post in question.

There is a huge logical inconsistency in these two approaches. For anyone to show up on the CRB's records, they must have been convicted and sentenced. That means that they have completed a sentence that was, in part, designed both to rehabilitate them and to deter them from repeating their offence. If it was a prison sentence, then (in addition) they were released on parole after a parole board decided that they were no longer a threat to the community. So, release from prison indicates that the person is safe to return to the community, whereas the CRB was established precisely because such people are not safe to return to the community.

The existence of the CRB check is, therefore, an admission that our criminal justice system is a failure. It is an admission that, despite completing their sentence, the criminal concerned is still a risk.

Hypothetically, would it therefore not have been better to look more closely at our justice system? To see how it might be improved so that those who had completed their sentence were objectively unlikely to re-offend? I realise that this is no easy task, and is (to a great extent) a pipe dream, but who would say that the CRB is easy to administer and cheap to run?

Surely, the cost and effort of the CRB could be put to better use within the criminal justice system, making the array of CRB checks unnecessary?

A final note. Mrs P works in a field where CRB checks are routine - and I mean, literally, routine; each organisation for whom she works has a member of staff (usually paid, unlike Mrs P) who processes the CRB forms in batches. No-one ever seriously expects the CRB check to return with anything other than a clean bill of health. If any ever did, people would probably faint. This means that no-one seriously thinks that all of this administrative effort, all of this cost, all of this work by so many people, all of the lost opportunity (in the form of what other work these people could do, what other investment we could make with this money) will actually stop anyone taking up the position for which they are applying.

Now, I will readily agree that this could indicate that CRB checks are forming an effective deterrent. but that is a justification for some CRB checking, not universal CRB checking.

The CRB is, therefore, a monumental waste of money, time and effort. As such it is, truly, a testament to New Labour.


  1. "We also have the Criminal Records Bureau (the "CRB"). This acts to stop known offenders from taking up posts where their record of criminality indicates that they may pose a threat to the community if they take up the post in question. "

    Unless, of course, the chap who is subcontracting to the council announces that he's been cleared even though he's a nonce...

  2. An appaling story, Julia - another example of someone who sees procedures as more important than reality.