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The UK's premier new media criminologist - on Twitter @criminology4u, facebook and blogging on Criminology in Public and Sports Criminology.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Story of a story

I am the very junior co-author of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report `Criminal justice resources staffing and workload'. The full press release reads:

Embargo: 00.01 Hours, Monday, 8 December 2008

Government approach to criminal justice ‘contradictory’, new report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies suggests

The criminal justice system faces major pressures in the coming years, with contradictory government policy placing staff under enormous strain, suggests a new report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London. The report, Criminal justice resources staffing and workloads, argues that workload and staffing pressures have grown alongside the increases in criminal justice budgets (1). As the government seeks to cut costs in the coming years, the report suggests, the key criminal justice agencies face a grim future of staffing cuts, wage freezes and increased work for those that remain. The report will be formally launched at the Palace of Westminster on Monday, 8 December 2008 (2).

Since 2001 the police, courts and Probation Service have benefited from above inflation budget growth. The Courts Service budget has grown by six per cent in real terms. The police budget has grown by 18 per cent and the Probation Service budget by 21 per cent. However, the report argues that once increases in staff levels and workloads are taken into account, as well as structural upheaval, these real terms budget increases are far less generous than they appear. In some cases the costs of structural change and increased workloads have outstripped budget growth.

The Prison Service has experienced a real terms fall of seven per cent in its budgets since 2001. This has placed the Service under huge strain, the report argues, given the rapidly rising prison population and the additional demands that have been placed on prison officers. As a result, government policy on prison is ‘mired in contradiction’, the report argues. It is difficult to see how such an approach can be sustained in the long term, it suggests.

The report concludes that the pressure on criminal justice budgets in the coming years offers the government an opportunity to take stock and reflect on what the criminal justice agencies can realistically achieve, and what their size and reach should be, given the likely resources that will be available.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London and co-author of the report said:

'The government looks set to pursue the contradictory policy objective of placing ever greater demands on the criminal justice system while cutting budgets and shedding experienced staff. It is difficult to see how this amounts to a coherent policy framework. The opportunity now exists for the government to rethink the demands it is placing on the criminal justice system and the staff working in it, bringing this more into line with the likely resources that will be available in the coming years.'

Dr Nic Groombridge, a criminologist, former Home Office civil servant and co-author of the report said:

'Neither as a criminologist nor as a former civil servant would I recommend simply increasing expenditure. However, the strains placed upon society by the current economic events and the stress placed upon criminal justice workers mean that the criminal justice system should not be overloaded and must receive adequate resources. Nothing to date or in the current plans gives me confidence that this will be the case.'
The Press Association picked it up and said:

'Fewer frontline police officers'

The number of frontline police officers is falling, according to new research.

Academics found there were nearly 1,500 fewer police constables in England and Wales last year compared with 2006 - a fall of more than 1%.

In the same year, the number of Police and Community Support Officers (PCSOs) doubled.

Researchers at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London, said cheaper staff were being recruited to give the impression there were more police.

They said the figures showed "the way in which the Home Office has relied on the recruitment of less qualified and lower paid auxiliary staff to boost the visible policing presence".

Until last year, Pc numbers grew every year from 2002. But the growth in beat officers was far outstripped by the number of higher-ranking officers. In the last five years the number of superintendents grew by 16% and chief inspectors by nearly 20%.

The report's authors examined funding and workload in the police, prisons, probation and courts systems. They found total spending on the criminal justice system was one third higher last year than in 1997. Police funding was up nearly 20% in real terms in the last five years, they said. But tighter budgets in the future were likely to mean future staff cuts, they warned.

The report found the number of administrative staff in the prison service had risen 20% in five years, despite budget cuts.

Co-author Richard Garside said Government policy was "mired in contradiction" with cuts coming despite an increase in the prison population. "The Prison Service is probably facing the greatest pressures of the criminal justice agencies examined in this report," he wrote.

"If the Government continues to increase the demands it places on the criminal justice system, and the staff working in it, the coming period of budget cuts will be an exceedingly challenging one. It is difficult to see how service quality will not decline in such circumstances. In particular, reductions in staffing seem almost inevitable if budgets are to be balanced."

This lead to a variety of stories, few of which do justice to the many facts and opinions in the report. The DailyExpress page7 takes the PA line. The Sun page 7 says `Blue line is thinner’ giving an even shorter prĂ©cis. Readers of Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News won’t be surprised at such ‘churnalism’. However, nothing in these reports is false just does scant justice to our work. It is clearly the ‘police’ issue that has legs.

The Daily Mail page 30 goes with `More police funding but fewer frontline officers' and appears to write own article backed up with quotes from all political sides as follows:

Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said: 'This undermines all Labour's rhetoric about record police numbers.
The fact is that because of Labour's target culture our police spend just 14 per cent of their time where the public want them, which is on the streets.'
Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said: 'The report rightly points out how incoherent policy from a Government obsessed with looking tough has left staff at the sharp end of the criminal justice system confused and overworked.'
But the Home Office insisted that spending on additional staff has meant fully-qualified officers can spend more time combating crime.
A spokesman said: 'Time spent by officers on frontline duties has increased each year since 2003 - equivalent to 5,340 more police officers. ‘
The Daily Telegraph page 2 `Police shortfall "hidden" by use of support officers' gives a similar story to the Mail. The use though of “hidden”, even with the quotes is clever since we don’t say this, indeed all the figures we use come from official sources and would be available to an assiduous journalist. Ironically the picture editor has chosen a picture of many officers to talk about the growth of PCSOs.

Only two online sources were truer to the report’s intentions. Thus Public Servant Online headlined a short piece highlighting the issues for the Prison Service “Criminal justice system 'under strain'”. InTheNews website called the, ‘Govt's approach to criminal justice 'contradictory'. They were the only one to run the quote I had provided for the press release.

However, I did have a number of press contacts in the days before and on the day of launch. On the Friday Sky News contacted me and set up a pre-record for the Sunday at there studios. BBC Wales also said they wanted a live interview from Millbank Studios for the Monday morning but, like the BBC’s Breakfast show, who’d phoned on Saturday night, they never came back to me. Later Sky Radio – they have no station but provide news for local commercial stations – also contacted me so visited them after doing Sky News.

I have had limited media contact but teach Crime and Media and have an MA in Journalism Studies. Richard and I had not thought our ‘findings’ that interesting and wondered if the fact that I had worked for the Home Office had piqued some interest so were surprised when all the questioning centred on the police numbers question. I don’t think I did that well and have not seen or heard the output. Indeed I don’t currently know if any of it was used.

However, after the launch – and before I got home – BBC Radio Five Live asked for a live interview at 4:20 on the Drive Time programme. I declined the offer to go into the studios at Millbank but elected to go home where I readied myself at my computer with a sort of script to move on from police figures – the researcher had mentioned them – to get back to the report and the problems faced by all the criminal justice workers even where they appeared to have done well and speculated a little on the future in the light of the credit crunch.

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