New Onward research: Super-prolific criminals, the case for action

On Wednesday 17th July, Onward published Super-prolific criminals: The case for action, by Neil O’Brien MP.

Read the full research note here | Tweet about the research note here

The research note unearths new Ministry of Justice data showing that in recent years the proportion of crime accounted for by a small number of criminals has increased dramatically. Roughly half of all crimes are being committed by 10% of offenders, and 4% of all crimes are being caused by 0.2% of all criminals.

This concentration of crime should present policy makers with an opportunity to reduce crime substantially. A targeted increase in the proportion of super-prolific offenders being jailed and an increase in their sentence length would reduce crime significantly.

However, the report draws on new data obtained through a series of Parliamentary Questions, and it reveals that in England and Wales:

Since 2007, the number of super-prolific criminals, (offenders with more than 50 previous convictions) who were convicted but spared jail tripled, from 1,299 in 2007 to 3,916 in 2018.  This means that the average MP would have seen two super prolific offenders spared jail in his or her constituency in 2007, but six per constituency in 2018.

Over the last ten years, there were:

  • 206,000 offenders who were convicted but did not receive an immediate custodial sentence, despite having more than 25 previous convictions.
  • 32,000 offenders who were spared jail, despite having more than 50 previous convictions and;
  • 2,450 offenders spared jail, despite having over 100 previous convictions.

After rising between 2010 and 2016, the proportion of prolific criminals dropped back sharply in the last two years. Between 2016 and 2018 the proportion of those who had over 100 previous offences who were jailed dropped from 51% to 43%. The proportion for those with over 75 offences dropped from 49% to 44%. And for those with over 50 offences from 48% to 45%. 

Although the proportion of highly prolific criminals jailed went up for several years, because crime is increasingly concentrated in a growing number of super-prolific offenders, the absolute numbers escaping jail still increased.  And as the proportion of super-prolific offenders jailed has fallen in the last couple of years, this problem has been exacerbated.

Among prolific offenders who were convicted of violence against the person, large numbers still escaped jail. Nearly a third of those who were convicted of violence against the person and had more than 25 previous convictions still escaped a jail sentence.

Turning to specific offences, criminals are in some cases committing the very same crime very large numbers of times without being jailed.

Looking at the last three years, there were people found guilty of common assault up to 44 times before being jailed. At least one person was convicted of assaulting a police officer 12 times before being jailed. There were people not jailed despite 15 convictions for robbery, 60 convictions for theft and 17 convictions for burglary. 

Despite high levels of concern about knife crime, there were individuals who were convicted of possession of an article with a blade or point up to 18 times without being jailed. This is despite the fact that anyone caught with a knife for a second time should automatically receive a six month jail sentence under section 28 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.

While the proportion of those convicted of a repeat offence of carrying a knife who were jailed has increased, it is far from 100%, even for those with multiple offences of the same kind.  35% of over 16s for whom it was their third conviction or caution for the same offence were not jailed, while 30% of those for whom it was their fourth or more offence of knife possession were not jailed in the year ending March 2019. This was up from 30% and 26% respectively the year before, as imprisonment rates appear to have declined.

Because the number of people who were convicted of knife possession has increased sharply in recent years, the decline in the proportion of repeat offenders who were not jailed last year meant that the number of people who were convicted or cautioned for a repeat knife crime but not jailed rose last year to over 2,000, its highest level since 2012.

 The report highlights the increasing number of suspended and community sentences offenders are being given before being jailed. Of those who were subsequently jailed, the number who had previously received 10 or more community sentences increased from 3,853 in 2007 to 6,216 in 2018.   The proportion of those jailed who had five or more previous community sentences increased from around a quarter (26%) to nearly a third (32%) over the same period. Only 27% of those jailed in 2018 had no previous community sentences.

Some individuals are being given absurd numbers of community sentences.  The highest number of previous community sentences received by an offender jailed in 2018 was 47, and in 2016 and 2017 it was 49. 

Offenders placed on community sentences between 2007 and 2015 were convicted of over 1.2 million crimes, including 46,675 offences of violence against the person and 472,000 thefts.

Of those jailed, the number with five or more previous suspended sentences increased nearly tenfold, from 286 in 2007 to 2,735 in 2018.

While the report focuses on prolific offenders, it highlights aspects of wider sentencing policy which are also concerning. The proportion of all those convicted of assaulting a police officer who were jailed declined from 17% in 2007 to just 13% in 2018.  At the same time the average length of a custodial sentence for such offences has also declined, from 2.8 months to just 2.2 months over the same period. 

Prisoners sentenced to a standard determinate custodial sentence must be released automatically at the halfway point of their sentence and serve the second half on licence. Those sentenced to at least 12 weeks but less than four years may be released on Home Detention Curfew (HDC) up to 135 days before the halfway point, depending on sentence length.

The number and proportion of prisoners being released under HDC increased sharply between 2017 and 2018, from 13% to over a fifth of those released (21%). Numbers released before the halfway point increased from 9,320 to 14,769.  Previously HDC releases had been falling – from 15% in 2011, to 12% in 2016.

The report makes three recommendations:

1)      A review of sentencing of prolific offenders with a view to creating a clearer expectation of longer and more certain prison sentences for super-prolific offenders. This could involve returning the ideas of minimum sentences and “earned release” which Conservatives promised in opposition.

2)      Investing in more prison capacity to enable more super-prolific offenders to be jailed and for longer.

3)      Action to improve and toughen community sentences, suspended sentences and drug rehabilitation programmes.

Report author Neil O’Brien said:

“Whoever is the next Prime Minister must invest in our jails and ensure that super-prolific criminals start getting the time in prison they deserve.”

“We need a review of sentencing policy regarding prolific criminals to jail more of them and for longer. We also need to invest in more prison capacity.”

“Large numbers of people should not be getting let out of prison before even the halfway mark of their sentence under early release.  In the long run we should be moving to honesty in sentencing so people serve the time that is read out in court.

“It is disturbing that sentencing for assaults on police officers has become so weak.  Brave police men and women are being used as punchbags by criminals on a daily basis, yet the courts are jailing smaller and smaller proportions of them.”

“There is absolutely no contradiction between believing in more and better action to prevent crime, and tough sentences for those who commit a lot of crime.  They should be two sides of the same coin.”

“There is also much more that could be done to steer prolific offenders away from a life of crime at an early age.  And one of the most important causes of prolific offending is drug addiction – for which we must improve treatment.  But we must also protect the public from the small group of people who commit so much crime. Super-prolific offenders must face more certain and longer prison sentences.”