Leading Article: Forcing change to reduce crime

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN does not require harsher prison sentences. Rather, it needs an efficient system of crime detection. As Lord Chief Justice Taylor remarked recently: 'The villain is not asking before he goes to commit a crime: 'Am I going to get three years or five years?'. He is asking: 'Am I going to get caught?' '

Today, the Audit Commission publishes a powerful report detailing how the police can make a better job of catching criminals. The report is sobering: only 40 per cent of police resources are actually used to tackle crime. Officers are hampered by a lack of vehicles, radios, computers and training, as well as inadequate management. Paperwork, duplication of tasks and poor intelligence gathering conspire to render the police far less effective than they could be.

This is where Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, should focus his attention. The police can hardly be blamed for crime levels that are still rising, albeit more slowly than in previous years, according to statistics published yesterday. But they are accountable for falling arrest and crime clear-up rates.

Police funding was generous during the Eighties but much of the increase went on boosting pay rather than on raising the resources devoted to crime detection. Here is a public service crying out for better management. Improved organisation is likely to offer greater returns in terms of public safety than the tougher jails Mr Howard described to yesterday's prison governors' conference.

One of the Home Secretary's predecessors, Sir Robert Peel, would give him the same message. In the early 19th century, the forces of law and order were so impotent that at times uncontrolled riots and crime menaced the existence of the state itself. Sir Robert recognised that traditional austere, inhumane prisons had not provided the solution. He created Britain's first well- managed police forces, largely free from corruption. Their development marked a turning point in the battle with crime. Prison reform became more palatable once the state had sharply improved crime detection and prevention.

Mr Howard is very aware of the police's problems. Last week he beat a judicious retreat on the recommendations of the Sheehy report that they most disliked. However, there are moves afoot to simplify paperwork and give chief officers greater freedom to spend their budgets as they wish. The message of the Audit Commission report is that a great deal more can be achieved with the same resources. With crime continuing to rise, the Home Secretary must encourage the police, who are reluctant to accept the pace of change, that business cannot go on as usual. Failure to pursue the commission's recommendations will further erode the force's effectiveness and fuel public anger as criminals escape detection. Mr Howard should follow Sir Robert's vision rather than seek harsher sentences, which have been demonstrated to be an expensive and, above all, ineffective alternative.