Leading Article: Punishments to fit the criminal

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Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is his own worst enemy. Yesterday, he had some moderately good news to impart: the third annual fall in recorded crime. Yet even as he delivered the news you could see his credibility draining away. Everyone's natural reaction was to ask: where's the catch? That must be the appropriate response since these new figures, welcome as they are, present such a mixed picture that they give no endorsement to Mr Howard's dogmatic penal disciplinarianism.

Detecting and deterring crime is much more complicated than this Home Secretary seems able to admit. Mr Howard seeks to persuade us that crime is governed by straightforward causal relationships. More police on the beat make more arrests and clear up more crimes. Judges, constrained by a tougher sentencing regime laid down by Mr Howard, send more offenders to prison, where they learn the error of their ways. Crime falls: simple as that.

The trouble is, it isn't. Making society safer for law-abiding citizens requires a joint effort by the public and the police, local authorities and companies, the courts and social services. The police are most effective when they act as a catalyst for the public doing more for themselves to police society. Prison is only one form of punishment: we should start to think more imaginatively about other forms of punishment that could be delivered in the community.

The figures published yesterday covered "notifiable offences". These are crimes recorded on police station dockets and fed through the statistical mills. They do not cover much of the crime people experience in their homes or on the streets, much of which goes unreported. Vehicle crime, on official definitions, is down; so is burglary. Yet most people are unlikely to say they feel safer than they did three years ago. Worse, in 1995 there were more homicides and a worrying pick-up in crime on the railways. Muggings rose but sexual offences fell. Yet the figures are no cause for cheer: about 100 women a week reported rapes last year.

Movements in the level of recorded crime may not tell us a great deal about which policies are most effective. It may tell us more about the way crime is reported and recorded. It also tells us something about demographic change. As the population ages, so crime should fall because older people get up to less mischief.

Fighting crime is not unlike fighting unemployment. There is no single unemployment problem but lots of them: the redundant, older, unskilled manual worker is not in the same position as a temporarily unemployed, young, skilled worker. There are also many crime problems: burglaries and vehicle crime demand different responses compared with violent crimes against women. We do not need blanket solutions for "crime"; we need a more forensic approach that distinguishes between offences and wrong- doers and applies to them appropriate schemes of detection, punishment and prevention.

Some of the big sweep schemes in which the Metropolitan Police have led the way - such as Operation Bumblebee - seem to have had some success, usually by heightening public awareness and strengthening the bond between police and public on which effective crime fighting depends. Sir Trefor Morris, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, says closed-circuit television is having some effect, though it may merely displace crime into adjacent areas.

The fact is, if we locked up a huge proportion of the age group most often implicated in crime, offending would be cut but civil liberties and the public finances would also be ruined. In the real world, policy ought to be targeted at reducing reoffending rates, and exploring more effective routes to make sure young, first-time offenders do not return to crime. These must include a range of non-custodial training and education regimes as well as exploring novel forms of punishment in the community. Tomorrow, Mr Howard announces a new sentencing regime that is likely to ignore not just the objections of judges to straitjacket sentences but the anguish - audible this week at their conference - of the prison governors at the growing strains on the prisons. If he uses these crime figures to justify his policies Mr Howard's political incredibility will be visible to all.