Please note not all views expressed in the film and on the blog necessarily reflect the views of coalition members.
The self-fulfilling prophesy that's doubled our prison population,
demonised our young and costs us billions...
Welcome to the Fear Factory

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Solving the prisoner’s dilemma

With the glimmering colourful lights and the smell of popcorn, the Empire at Leicester square seems an unlikely place for serious discussion on public policy. Yet it may be the starting point for an important movement to change public perceptions and the politics of youth justice.

Yesterday about 400 people were gathered at the Empire for the first screening of the documentary The Fear Factory. The film powerfully described how the fear of crime is maintained by sensationalist media coverage and the cynical tactics of political parties. This has lead to harsher and more punitive responses to youth crime, which in many cases do little more than entrench the criminal behaviour. The documentary, produced by Spirit Level Films, is connected with a campaign for a criminal justice policy that is more humane and long-term in its perspective – and ultimately better at delivering safety for our neighbourhoods. nef’s latest report Punishing Costs was launched in connection with the screening.

With interviews from key experts and practitioners, the documentary shows how the public’s beliefs about the risk of becoming a victim and the general trends in the amount of crime were far from reality and all evidence. Britain has become a safer place in the past two decades – yet the fear of crime remains stubbornly high.

Unfortunately, it is perceptions that drive politics. One of the safest political strategies in the recent past has been to promise to crack down misbehaving youth and to hit them where it hurts. The Fear Factory documents how any deviation from this pattern is quickly struck down, as happened to Cameron when he suggested understanding the social causes of crime. The film also points an accusing finger at the media that gives disproportionate attention to violent cases and misrepresents sentencing as more lenient than it is in truth.

This reaction may actually create the monster that it so much fears. In the climate of alarm about youth crime, the imprisonment of children and young people has remained on very high levels. Prison as an intervention is incapable of dealing with the real causes of crime, and does little more than temporarily isolates an individual from contact with society. About three in four young people released from prison return to crime within a single year.

At the same time custody uses up massive amounts of resources that could have truly improved the safety on our streets. Our report Punishing Costs shows how the full cost of a year-long sentence in prison is £140,000. It is worth pausing to think about what could be achieved if these resources would be put to a positive use.

The screening was followed by an excellent panel that included some prominent criminologists and politicians – and an ex-editor of a tabloid who astonishingly displayed no sense of regret for his past role. Most of the panellist agreed that current policy was too much determined by knee-jerk reactions to high-visibility criminal cases in the media and an arms race between the parties to appear to be the true guardians of law and order.

One of the solutions they proposed by the speakers was to create a cross-party committee for a longer-term vision of developing criminal justice policy that all parties would sign up to. This would curtail the harmful competition between parties, which has led to the current punitive arrangements that hardly anyone believes to be productive or humane. Such a committee, together with a better debate and engagement with the public, is part of the recommendations of Punishing Costs.

Documentaries are powerful tools in transmitting knowledge and awareness of issues. At a time when the media is transmitting a largely false picture and political parties are failing to take the leadership to change perceptions, a film may be exactly the tool that is needed. I hope the Fear Factory, and the coalition forming to campaign around it, receive the attention they deserve.

Aleksi Knuutila
Researcher in the Valuing What Matters programme at nef
Original article:

Friday 12 March 2010

The Fear Factory

The “Fear Factory” is a new film about the criminal justice system. Watch the trailer or find out more here.

On releasing “The Fear Factory” at a closed screening in Central London last week, the Bulger case was history – the hair-trigger cause of the youth justice crisis which the film shows unfolding over the past two decades. This weeks events have shown it’s more real, more relevant than ever – and more worryingly, that we’ve learnt little from the past.

Despite knowing full well that a punitive climate, stoked by a distorted fear of crime has lead to a doubling of our prison population and rates of re-offending as high as 90%, our educated friends in Westminster have done nothing to change this. So why not? Could it be because fear actually helps them… ?

In the 1990’s law and order burst onto the political agenda as way to grab votes and Michael Howard, home secretary when Bulger’s killers were sentenced, led the way – bending to public and tabloid pressure and extending the killers sentences. A canny Blair, realised that crime, and especially youth crime was a big winner with the red tops and if he was going to win the election he needed them on-side.

The Sun’s then Executive Editor told us in a cringe-worthy moment for anyone who bought Blair’s hype at the time:

He ran, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” past me and asked “do you think the press will go for this one?

They did; In a big way, and NuLabour™, took Howard’s precedent to the max. For example our exec editor at the Sun wrote a leader saying yobs should be frogmarched to cashpoint machines and within a week it was Labour policy. Some 4,300 new criminal offences have been introduced in the last decade and today we’re paying the price. It costs up to £250,000 to keep a young offender in custody and as few as 10% stay on the straight and narrow when they get out.

Meanwhile, some states in the US are investing heavily in programmes that have now been proven successful at re-habilitating young offenders and scrapped plans to build new prisons. This should make us pause for thought but the re-emergence of Bulger and resultant coverage ahead of a general election doesn’t bode well – both Tories and Labour have pledged to build more prisons and the Ministry of Justice has just signed off on a private sector contract to build and run the first Titan-style prison for young offenders.

Alongside Ministers and MPs in the film we also interviewed victims, young offenders and killers. None of them pulled any punches (probably why broadcasters won’t touch anything but a hacked down version). Off the back of the film, 47 national organisation joined a coalition asking for an end to this ‘arms race on political tough talk’; The Liberal Democrats have pledged not to use fear as an electioneering tool – in stark contrast to the Conservatives and Labour. Maria Eagle MP (Ministry of Justice) refused to make the same pledge at our screening, with Labour’s new advert on crime out – it’s not hard to see why. At least she had the courage to come to the screening, unlike Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve MP, who was conveniently called away at the last minute on a three line whip and unable to defend himself on what many will see as a direct endorsement of Chris Grayling’s “misleading” statements on crime figures.

by Joanna Natasegara and Richard Symons
March 12, 2010 at 8:00 am
Liberal Conspiracy

Do go and comment on their blog:

Monday 8 March 2010

Tough on crime? Jail's not the answer

Locking up more people is a populist ploy that doesn't cut crime. We would focus on rigorous community sentences instead

You wouldn't run the NHS without testing the effectiveness of drugs. No sane economist would let you run the economy without elaborate modelling to test fiscal and monetary policies. It should be a given that important matters of public policy are based on evidence and research, rather than political whim. Why, then, is the field of criminal justice uniquely and scandalously divorced from this obvious rule?

In no other area of public policy are politicians as ready and willing to play to the public gallery as on crime. Since Tony Blair became shadow home secretary in 1992, Labour's approach to law and order has been to try to out-Tory the Tories in being seen as tough on crime. The Tories were only too willing to prey on people's fear of crime and enter into a sentencing arms race conducted in the pages of tabloid newspapers. Both sides continue to try to frighten the public into the arms of their party. It is this politics of fear that has created the dismal bidding war between politicians and the press on crime, a loss of faith in the police and judiciary, and the systematic demonisation of young people.

Rabid rhetoric has helped to criminalise a generation of young people. Britain is the sick man of Europe in terms of youth justice. We have the lowest age of criminal responsibility and highest rate of youth imprisonment. In Labour's first decade in power, a million children were convicted of a criminal offence and another million were cautioned. After the ridiculous top-down targets of 2002 (where fining a child for littering or cannabis was given the same points value as solving a murder), the police found children were easy pickings. As a result, the number of children entering the criminal justice system rose two and a half times faster than adults.

We now spend 11 times more on locking children up than on projects to stop them sliding into crime in the first place. Yet incarceration just increases the likelihood of turning them into serious adult offenders. There are more people in the colleges of crime we call our prisons than ever before. More places are being built. Sentences are getting longer. But it is not working. Reoffending remains sky-high. Nine out of every 10 young men sentenced to a first short custodial sentence get out of prison and commit more crime. Yet the politics of fear dictates that both the Tories and Labour are pledging to send more people to prison for longer just because it sounds tough. Liberal Democrats would not build more prisons. We are the only party brave enough to suggest that rigorous community sentences are more effective than short prison sentences.

The debate about crime in this country desperately needs to be raised above the populist pandering of what sounds "tough". It needs to be about what actually works to cut crime. Labour and the Tories would like you to think that locking people up has led to less crime. The evidence suggests otherwise. We have the second highest crime rate in Europe (after Sweden) and yet the highest rate of incarceration (except for Luxembourg). Other countries, such as Denmark, have managed to take advantage of falling crime rates to reduce their prison populations. Yet Labour and the Tories remain wedded to multi-billion pound plans to lock more people up.

The Liberal Democrats will not peddle the politics of fear. This is the promise we will make to voters in the run up to the election. This is the promise my colleague David Howarth made this week at the screening of the new film the Fear Factory (see you see a trailer here), which exposes our criminal justice crisis with forensic precision. It is a promise Maria Eagle refused to make because she knew Labour colleagues could not and would not keep it. The Conservative party was so scared of the question that Dominic Grieve dodged it by refusing to turn up. They both remain as committed to the law and order arms race as ever.

Instead of posturing on penalties, the Liberal Democrats will focus on proven methods of catching criminals and cutting crime. We will put criminal justice on an evidence-based footing by establishing a National Crime Reduction Agency to test properly what cuts crime. It will do for policing and criminal justice policy what the National Institute for Clinical Excellence does for the health service. We need all the evidence we can get if we are to get other politicians and the media to concentrate on what works rather than what scares.

Chris Huhne
Sunday 7 March 2010

Friday 5 March 2010

Deaths of children and young people in penal custody

INQUEST has been working to identify trends and issues emerging from the issue of deaths of children and young people in custody since 1990. We have also been concerned with the effectiveness of the state’s investigative processes for identifying and rectifying dangerous practices and procedures in order to ensure that lessons are learned and further fatalities prevented. We have worked on many child death cases, produced numerous documents on the issue and published a detailed analysis in the book In the Care of the State? Child deaths in Penal Custody in England and Wales by Barry Goldson and Deborah Coles (INQUEST 2005). It concluded that children should not be imprisoned save for in child-centred Local Authority Secure Children’s Homes.

Since January 2000 126 young people aged 18-21 and children aged 14-17 have died whilst in state custody in prisons, immigration detention centres and secure training centres. 113 of those young people took their own lives, and two died as the result of homicides by other prisoners. This figure includes 12 self-inflicted deaths of children in custody.

Our monitoring of the investigation and inquest process following the deaths of children and young people has revealed consistent and repeated features, illustrating that systemic failings are not being addressed but continue to be reproduced by the practices and processes of child imprisonment. The starting point is the very high levels of children being sentenced or remanded to custody (often at great distances from home) with no consideration by the court as to where the child will be detained. This is resulting in children who are often extremely vulnerable being sent to institutions which do not have the resources, facilities or trained staff to deal with their needs.

Increasing numbers of children and demonstrably vulnerable young people are being detained in manifestly unsafe environments and being subjected to bullying, degrading treatment such as strip-searching, segregation and restraint. This amounts to a failure by the state to fulfil its duty of care towards children in its custody and additionally is a significant and substantial breach of the UK’s international treaty obligations. However, the violation of the rights of this large body of children goes worryingly beyond inhumane and humiliating treatment. It has been proven forensically that it presents a persistent risk of injury, suffering or death to young people detained in child prisons.

The campaign for a public inquiry into the death of 16 year old Joseph Scholes in HMYOI Stoke Heath in 2002 received strong parliamentary support and galvanised both the public and NGOs. Our work on this campaign drew national and international attention to the high number of children and young people dying in the hands of the state. INQUEST also has particular concerns about the high levels of restraint used on children in custody. We produced case briefings on the restraint-related deaths in 2004 of 14 year old Adam Rickwood, who took his own life in Hassockfield Secure Training Centre shortly after being restrained by staff, and of 15 year old Gareth Myatt who was killed in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre after being asphyxiated by three custody officers who restrained him after an incident following his refusal to clean a toaster. Our work with the families and their legal team was critical in exposing the dangerous and unlawful use of restraint. In 2007, we also campaigned successfully with the NSPCC and the Child Rights Alliance for England to end the use of pain compliance restraint techniques against children in custody.

Most recently an inquest concluded into the death of 15 year old Liam McManus who was found hanging in his cell in Lancaster Farms Young Offender Institution in 2007, the thirtieth child to die in state custody since 1990. The jury returned a six-page narrative verdict which criticised the YOI, social services and the Youth Justice Board's systemic failings of a seriously damaged young boy. It is deeply shocking that such failings across several agencies responsible for Liam's care were highlighted once again, despite all the previous inquests into deaths of children.

What the inquests held into the deaths of children and young people have uncovered is that the juvenile justice system needs urgent and profound public scrutiny, investigation and review, significantly wider in scope than the inquest process permits. It is essential for there to be a properly-resourced, transparent and critical analysis of the defects of the custodial treatment of children and young people in the form of a public inquiry in order to ensure that the deaths of the children of the families who we support are not to be entirely in vain.

Deborah Coles,

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Tainted by the James Bulger legacy

Why does the horrific murder of a Merseyside toddler by two young boys in 1993 still have such a lasting effect on the way we demonise and stereotype disturbed children?

Nasty little juveniles. Hooligans. Freaks. Bastards. Worthless. Evil. Those are just a few of the words used by our politicians and media to describe some of the country's children. It could be now, but this was in 1993, the year that two-year-old James Bulger was murdered on Merseyside by two 10-year-old boys.

I grew up with what headlines described as "hooligans on holiday". In 1985, my parents set up Bryn Melyn, a home in north Wales to look after some of the most disturbed teenagers in the country. They included children who'd slice themselves open to push paper clips underneath their own skin; a girl who inserted shards of a smashed lightbulb inside her vagina; a boy whose guardians – his grandparents – would hold his hands in the fire to punish him; and a pubescent girl whose parents would drag her out of bed when they got back from the pub so their friends could have sex with her.

The "holiday" bit referred to the intensive one-to-one trips abroad my dad designed to kick-start their rehabilitation. These trips were incredibly successful. Before we sent the first boy away, he had regularly assaulted the staff and other teenagers. After returning from a three-month trip to France, he went to work with Alzheimer's patients. A short spell in prison – this boy's only other option – has a failure rate for young men of about 90%.

As part of my research for a book I am writing about Bryn Melyn, I've studied the newspaper coverage of 1993 to trace the path between the horrific Bulger murder and the way we view young people today.

When the death of James hit the papers, the Daily Star offered a £20,000 reward "to trap beasts who killed little James". The Guardian reported a "lynch mob" outside the home of a wrongly arrested 12-year-old suspect. In the Sun, Richard Littlejohn screeched: "This is no time for calm. It is a time for rage, for blood-boiling anger, for furious venting of spleen." Headlines such as "Evil that makes a child kill", "Locked up in luxury", "Riot mob fears at Jamie court" dominated the newspapers.

It was also the perfect opportunity for the Tories to reassert themselves as the party of law and order. Three days after James's body was found, the then prime minister, John Major, gave an interview to the Mail on Sunday, highlighting his tough stance on crime. He said: "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less." Five days later, his home secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announced plans to incarcerate children as young as 12. When it came to the two boys charged with the Bulger murder, the policeman in charge of the case, Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, asked us "to remember that they are 10 years of age". But the law didn't. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were tried as adults.

"How do you feel now, you little bastards?" asked the Daily Star's front page on the day of the sentence. "Evil, brutal and cunning," said the Mail. The Mirror went for "Freaks of nature".

Despite the sensationalist, fear-mongering coverage of the Bulger case, my father was still taken by surprise when he first went on television to talk about his work. "When the producers of Eamonn Holmes's chat show invited me along to 'put across my side of the story', I naively believed them," he says. "I walked into the studios just before the programme went live. As it did, a huge 'Hooligans on Holiday' banner unrolled behind me. Then three women in the audience stood up with pictures of their dead children, who'd been killed by joyriders. Our kids had never killed anyone, and many hadn't even offended, but the producers were quite happy to confuse joyriders, murderers, young offenders and children in care.

"Throughout the negative press attention, social services knew the trips worked, and continued to place children with us. But the kids themselves were very upset and angry. They felt they were being verbally abused by the whole country."

In response to a Sun campaign, Michael Howard, who had become home secretary, (illegally) extended the sentences imposed on Venables and Thompson from 10 years to 15 years. And in response to the media furore surrounding Bryn Melyn, Howard also banned therapeutic trips abroad for children in care.

Recent media attention has turned to Edlington, South Yorkshire, where two brothers, aged 10 and 11, brutally burnt, stabbed and sexually assaulted two boys, aged nine and 11. This incident has the same ingredients as the Bulger case: the horrific attack, the disastrous parenting, the boys' escalating violence, and the failure of the relevant authorities to do anything about it.

It is a simple cause and effect; incidents like these don't just happen. But instead of tackling this problem rationally, we defer to hysteria and hollow accusations that solve nothing and protect no one.

These days, we have Facebook pages and YouTube video montages dedicated to James Bulger, created by people who, apparently, never even met him. Nobody will say that these are mawkish, sentimental and ultimately extremely damaging in their creation of monstrous, unsubstantiated fears about young people. Nobody will say to Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, that it has got nothing to do with her swhen she demands that the Edlington boys be named. Nobody seems bothered that the media has casually dubbed the Edlington boys the "devil brothers" or "hell boys".

But amid this fresh wave of moral panic, there is a glint of optimism. A new documentary by Spirit Level Films, The Fear Factory, was launched in London on Monday, and attempts to untangle the perceptions we have about our "dangerous" young people. Increasingly frustrated with the perpetuation of stereotypes and the way young people are treated in care, the criminal justice system, and even schools, three organisations – Safer Wales Ltd, Construction Youth Trust and Addaction – commissioned the film, which includes interviews with politicians, heads of charities and teenagers. "We want the film to be a wake-up call to politicians, colleagues who work in this field, and to the media," says Barbara Natasegara, chief executive of Safer Wales.

A failure to intervene with a holistic approach early in the lives of young people at risk of offending has had stark consequences. We spend 11 times more on locking children up than on preventing youth crime. About 75% of young people leaving custody will reoffend, and 27% of adult prisoners have been in care. Reoffending by these former children in care costs about £3bn a year.

As a result of The Fear Factory, more than 40 charities have now formed a coalition to lobby the government to put a stop to our relentless demonisation of young people.

Seventeen years on, it still sickens me to remember the parents of the children in Bryn Melyn who gave newspaper interviews complaining that the way my father was treating their children was a waste of time, that what he was doing was wrong.

Helen McNutt
The Guardian
Wednesday 3 March 2010