Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Prison sentencing and the media

This morning, a story is circulating in the media which apparently once and for all proves that longer sentences cut crime, so we can all just stop thinking about it and start locking people up for as long as possible. Huzzah! It has appeared in the Star, the Express, the Guardian and the BBC, alongside pretty much every other news outlet.

The news is a huge boon to conservative thinkers who have long advocated tougher prison sentences, so it was no surprise to see the likes of unstoppable Tory gobshite Philip Davies MP crowing about it on Twitter:
We now know for sure that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to re-offend! Some of us have said this for years!

So, what do the findings say? Well, according to pretty much all papers, they say things like "The longer the prison sentence the less likely an offender is to commit a further crime, according to research" (the BBC). The Guardian, while saying much the same thing, helpfully links to a PDF of the figures so we can have a look for ourselves (as all online news outlets should do in 2011). Here we find, among other things, a couple of very important quotes that are missing from Davies' crowing, and most of the media reporting:
The findings are not conclusive on whether the deterrent effect of longer custodial sentences is effective at reducing re-offending
So yeah, the findings are not...wait, what? I thought Philip Davies MP said that now we know FOR SURE? How can this be?
Despite higher re-offending rates, offenders receiving sentences of less than 12 months do not have access to offender management programmes and are not subject to supervision by the Probation Service upon release. This latter factor is also likely to explain some of the difference between community sentences/suspended sentence orders and short prison sentences.
Oh, right. So there's a fundamental difference between the 'short' sentences and the longer ones which means that factors other than simply the length of sentence itself could be responsible for a discrepancy. That is really a quite major difference, as it implies that effective managment programmes and post-release supervision are possibly having a big effect, not just the actual banging-up of people for as long as possible.

Custodial sentences of less than twelve months were less effective at reducing re-offending than both community orders and suspended sentence orders
That's another nuance somewhat left alone in the media coverage today, which all seems startlingly similar. (Although, if you read the Express' frankly childish attempt to cover it you might come out a tad stupider than if you'd read one of the other, real newspapers). While the Guardian mentions the importance of community sentences for minor crimes, the Mail's effort, somewhat unsurprisingly, doesn't.

The only thing that's really clear from this study is that, like most reports, you can spin it how you want, and that newspapers will spin it in a way that reflects their politics. Or, at least, that newspapers will copy other newspapers' spin. There's a lot of depth and complexity to the figures, but the bottom line is this - it seems ludicrous that you could have, for example, a BBC headline that says;
Longer prison sentences cut reoffending, study suggests
...referring to a report that says;
The findings are not conclusive on whether the deterrent effect of longer custodial sentences is effective at reducing re-offending
Or so you would think!


  1. I blame feminists..

  2. This is symptomatic of the very thing I just wrote a dissertation on.

    "The media construction of crime and the use of criminologists in the reporting of crime"

    If anyone would be interested in reading this unpublished work, please email me at