Don't let the panic over crime distract us from the fight against criminality

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The early warning signs of an incipient offender are all too clear. Ambition, haste and populism could so easily tip David Blunkett into becoming a hardened Home Secretary – aggressive, out of control and counter-productive. Yet there is also much to suggest that he is not yet lost to the cause of an intelligent criminal justice policy, that his basic instincts are liberal and pragmatic.

At the moment he is careering between sense and nonsense, hoping that speed alone will prevent his inconsistencies becoming too obvious. Wednesday's Downing Street "summit" on street crime looked like a panic response to a month of headlines about mobile phone thefts, carjackings and muggings; while yesterday's announcement on tagging looked like a panic response to prison overcrowding.

These perceptions are a little unfair on Mr Blunkett. Convening a summit on street crime after five years of government supposedly tough on crime and its causes reflects badly on Tony Blair and Jack Straw, but not so much on the new Home Secretary. The scheme for fixed-penalty fines, which we report today, meanwhile, is the Prime Minister's re-heated quick fix, which is a minor part of dealing with the symptoms.

Equally, while policy should not be driven by the size of the prison population, it is undoubtedly too high. The prison population should be a residual – a quantity arrived at as the result of other factors, not as a target in itself. We should decide who needs to be locked up and what should be done with them while they are detained, and then provide the facilities. But a sensible policy which sought to lock up only the most serious offenders who are a direct threat to people's safety, and which used tagging much more, would not only avert the threat of another Strangeways riot, it would offer the best prospect of diverting a large number of potential future criminals from crime. This is not least because it would free a great deal of money for support and rehabilitation. Prison must be the most expensive way of ensuring that criminals stay criminals.

How much better to use the money presently spent on prisons to improve and "join up" social services departments, the probation service, the police and the courts. That must be the answer to trying to prevent young troublemakers from becoming career criminals, as it is to trying to persuade convicted criminals to go straight. These are unglamorous and complex areas of public policy, against which the hue and cry to "lock 'em up" has tended to prevail in the past. But a burgeoning prison population and young offender institutions which make a mockery of the idea of rehabilitation have done nothing to fight crime in the past 30 years. Of course, the small number of child hooligans known to the police who are responsible for a large proportion of petty crime ought to be in secure accommodation. The police are justifiably frustrated about what is clearly not a problem of detection but of intervention to change the behaviour of some children beyond the reach of family or school. But that intervention has to be caring and expensive to stand any chance of being effective.

Mr Blunkett's position evinces some sympathy. A thoroughgoing liberal approach would be difficult to sell to an electorate steeped in the punitive ideology of the vindictive press. But if experiments, such as Commander Paddick's in Brixton, other schemes for better targeting of police resources and Mr Blunkett's plan for tagging, can be shown to work, public opinion might begin to change. If the Home Secretary can hold the line for policies which reassure the fearful yet start to get a grip on the causes of criminal behaviour, he deserves unstinting support.