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
    headlines.

     


    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
    months.

     


    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
    altogether.

     


    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
    Times
    .

     


    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.

     


    S
    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
    unclear.

     


    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
    orders.

     


    The YJB has promoted the ISSP policy as a “robust alternative
    to custody for young people” and Community
    Care’
    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
    level.

     


    F

    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.

     


    ABSTRACT


    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
    research.

     


    REFERENCES


    (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,
    2003

     


    CONTACT THE AUTHOR


    Email: merrington@onetel.com

     

     

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