What’s the Truth?

Simon Merrington is a research consultant working on the
evaluation of ISSP for Oxford University. He has worked on various
evaluation projects for the Home Office and Youth Justice Board,
and was previously a researcher with the probation service. The
views expressed are his own.

The publication of the evaluation of the intensive supervision and
surveillance programme last year led The Sun to announce
that “Youth crime scheme fails”.(1) The BBC News headline was
that eight out of 10 young offenders on a flagship community
punishment scheme re-offended within a year. The Youth Justice
Board, which had published the evaluation, sent out a press release
declaring that the bold and imaginative scheme had made a positive
start to reforming the worst young offenders.


As one of the researchers, I was disappointed to see three
years’ work summarised in such contradictory and simplistic
ways. Governments commission sophisticated research in order to
measure the impact of social programmes, but it seems that
politicians and the media can only cope with simple


So what are the real results of our research so far, and how can
they be communicated in a balanced way? The ISSP is the YJB’s
most intrusive community intervention, reserved for the most
persistent and serious offenders. It was phased in between 2001 and
2003. It lasts six months and contains a surveillance element
(usually electronic tagging) and attendance at a variety of
programmes (mainly educational and offending-related) for 25 hours
a week, dropping to five hours a week after three


Our most important finding was that the 41 schemes we evaluated
managed to set up ISSP successfully, target the most difficult
offenders, achieve credibility with sentencers, and reach the
national target of 4,000 starts per year. Most designed their own
programmes, but some adopted established schemes like the American
Youth Advocate Programme. While contact hours only averaged 22
hours in the intensive period, they averaged 16 hours in the second
three months, well above the requirement.


The main press criticism of ISSP has been that 85 per cent of
offenders committed at least one offence during the 12-month
follow-up period. This is hardly surprising given that they had
committed an average of 8.5 offences during the previous year. It
would be naive to expect such people to stop offending


Because of this, the YJB’s objective was to reduce the
frequency and seriousness of offending. According to our follow-up
data, the frequency of offending in the following year dropped to
4.9 offences – a reduction of 43 per cent. There was also an
improvement when the most serious offence in the two periods was
compared. This news was reported by the BBC and The


But there is a danger with using this headline as well, since the
improvement may not be attributable to the ISSP. We therefore
followed up a small control group of people who were eligible but
received ordinary supervision in the community by youth offending
teams. The existence of this control group was not mentioned by any
of the press or in the YJB’s press release.


urprisingly, this group’s
offending reduced by a similar amount to the ISSP group. What does
this mean? It could be that both methods are equally effective. Or,
since persistent offending occurs in bursts, it could mean that
some reduction was likely whatever action was taken. Or it could be
that different results would be found with a larger and more
representative control group. We are currently extending the study
for 12 months and enlarging the control group to explore this
further, but at the moment the impact of ISSP on reoffending is


The Daily Mail criticised the fact that only 47 per cent
completed their ISSP orders. Clearly this is serious and limits the
positive impact that ISSP can have. But we need to understand the
reasons for this: the intensive demands of the programme, the
profile of young people and the strictness with which
non-compliance is dealt with. On the latter point, 34 per cent were
taken back to court and re-sentenced for failing to comply. As a
comparison, in a recent study of drug treatment and testing orders,
only 30 per cent of people completed their programme.(2) So our conclusion was that
the ISSP was relatively successful in getting people through their


The YJB has promoted the ISSP policy as a “robust alternative
to custody for young people” and Community
s editorial focused on the value of ISSP in
diverting people from custody. But to what extent does it actually
do this? At one level it is simply a misleading description of
ISSP, because it can be used at three stages in the sentencing
process: as a condition of bail, as a condition of a community
sentence, and following release from custody. Only the second has
the potential to be an alternative to a custodial sentence (62 per
cent of all ISSPs).


We investigated whether this type of ISSP appeared to have had an
impact on custodial sentencing across the country. In research
terms it is difficult to establish a causal connection. True, there
was a reduction in use of custody for juveniles between 2001 and
2003. But other trends were at work too, and we found that the
reduction in use of custody was as great in areas without ISSP as
in areas with it. In other words, ISSP did not appear to be an
essential element in the reduction. While not disagreeing with
Community Care about the negative effects of custody, we
did not find evidence that ISSP is having an impact at national



inally, we considered the impact of ISSP on offenders’ lives,
and especially the problems underlying their offending. Tackling
these is likely to have the greatest impact on offending in the
long term. Not surprisingly, our sample was high on personal and
social problems. Only one in five were in mainstream education and
their average reading age was 10.8 (actual age 16.4).

Of those over school-leaving age, more than half were unemployed.
Thirty-eight per cent absconded or regularly stayed away from home,
and 36 per cent were living with known offenders. While substance
abuse was less serious (mainly alcohol, tobacco and cannabis), 60
per cent said they had lots of friends who got into trouble.
Perhaps most significantly, many had attitudes which supported
offending, and saw themselves as offenders.


ISSPs addressed many of these problems, and we tried to measure
improvements in various ways. Not all problems were tackled
successfully and improvements were greater among programme
completers. But there were significant improvements in education,
lifestyle (especially peer group influence), attitudes to
offending, and 
self-control. While these were not tested in the control group, the
feedback from staff, offenders and parents or carers suggests ISSPs
have an impact on offending-related problems.


Overall, what have we learned? There are no easy fixes, even when
using an intensive, multi-modal programme. Early intervention is
likely to be more cost-effective than waiting until a pattern of
persistent offending has developed. But it is possible to make an
impact on the frequency and seriousness of offending.


A key to success is to balance the “control” elements
of ISSP (such as tagging and strict enforcement) with the
“helping” elements (such as education, mentoring and
programme work), which can engage and motivate young offenders to
change. Solely using alternatives such as tagging or custody are
unlikely to be as effective.



This article responds to the media coverage of a research study on
the Youth Justice Board’s intensive supervision and
surveillance programmes for persistent and serious young offenders.
It argues that simplistic reporting, either from hostile or
sympathetic sections of the press, fails to do justice to the
complexity of important social programmes, and the results of



(1) R Moore, E Gray, C Roberts, S Merrington, I Waters, R
Fernandez, G Hayward and R Rogers, The Initial Report on the
Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme, Youth Justice
Board, 2004

(2) M Hough, A Clancy, T McSweeney and P Turnbull, The Impact of
Drug Treatment and Testing Orders on Offending: Two Year
Reconviction Results, Home office research findings 184,



Email: merrington@onetel.com



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