“This isn’t accomplishing anything” – The US Death Penalty in 2013

19 Dec

On January 16, 2013, Robert Gleason Jnr became the first person to be executed by the American criminal justice system in 2013. He was electrocuted.

A Virginia inmate who pleaded guilty to a 2007 murder, Gleason had also killed two other prisoners while he was serving his sentence. Four US states offer condemned prisoners the option to choose electrocution over lethal injection. Gleason was the first prisoner to choose electrocution since March 2010.

Only 157 death-row electrocutions have taken place out of 1,320 executions since the US death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Gleason’s lawyers had argued he had a long history of mental illness and his condition had deteriorated during a year in solitary confinement.

He repeatedly emphasised that he had waived the appeals process because he knew he would kill again if he was not executed. Governor Bob McDonnell stated that has expressed no remorse for his crimes, and was found competent by the appropriate courts.

The final execution of 2013 in the USA was carried out in Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Johnny Dale Black was executed  on December 17, 2013. He had been convicted of first-degree murder.

According to Oklahoma Corrections representative Jerry Massie, Black’s final words were:

“This isn’t accomplishing anything. It’s just another death, another family destroyed. I love everybody. I love you — you can count on that, Mama.”

In 2013, there were a total of 39 executions in 9 states in America (there were a total of 80 capital sentences imposed in 2013). Just two states, Texas and Florida, were responsible for almost three-fifths of all US executions this year.

A number of prominent capital punishment states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, did not impose a single death sentence in in 2013, while Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment.

This year was only the second year in almost two decades that America executed fewer than 40 people. Thirty two US states continue to have the death penalty as a sentencing option, while 18 states have abolished capital punishment. The total of executions in America has been falling overall since 1999, when 98 people were executed.

2013 US death penalty graphic

2013 US death penalty graphic

According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s latest annual report, the number of executions declined in 2013. Fewer states passed death sentences, and the number of those of death row decreased year-on year. Richard Dieter, the Centre’s Executive Director has observed that

Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure… The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

Probation in Statistics

2 Dec

The Probation Service in England and Wales supervised some 234,528 people in 2011. This is almost three times the number of people in prison, yet probation achieved this huge scale of supervision with a relatively small number of staff. On 30th June 2012, the Probation Service employed a total of just 17,881 staff (this figure includes Chief Executives).

The number of probation staff is limited compared to (for example) the 134,101 police officers in post on 31 March 2012, or to the 45,576 prison service and NOMS HQ staff in post on the same day.

In addition, the total of 17,881 probation staff was 585 staff fewer than the year before.

Staff working in management roles in probation accounted for 11.87% of the total workforce (or 2,123 staff).

Probation: Providing Real Value

While probation does not always get a fair press, it provides immense value to the taxpayer, particularly when viewed in the context of the fiscal cost of imprisonment.

In 2011/12, the average cost for each Community Order/Suspended Sentence Order supervised was £4,135. The cost per offender supervised on licence post-custody was £2,380. The cost of writing a Pre-Sentence Report was just £215.

These figures compare very favourably with the average cost of providing a prison place for the year, which is £37,648.

As the shift to privatisation of a substantial proportion of the work of the Probation Service’s work flies, it is worth bearing the value offered by probation in mind.

Probation: A Representative & Diverse Service?

How representative of the wider population is probation? Women represented 71% of the probation workforce in post on 31 December 2011, whilst men were 29% of the total. The percentage of probation posts held by female staff has remained steady (hovering around 70-71%) since 2009, notwithstanding a 7% drop in the overall number of probation posts during this period.

The proportion of senior probation posts held by women rose by 5% between 2009 and 2011.

In terms of race and ethnicity, 14.1%  of probation staff were  from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BME) background on 31 December 2010.

Probation staff from a Black ethnic background represented 8.3%, those from an Asian background represented 3.5%, those of Mixed background were 1.8% and while those of Chinese or Other background represented 0.5% of the service.

The proportion of senior probation staff (that is, Chief Executives, Deputy Chief Officers, Assistant Chief Officers and Area/District Managers) from a BME background was 8%.

All of these figures suggest that probation has enjoyed more success in achieving diversity amongst its staff, including senior staff, than other criminal justice agencies.

At a senior level, 8.0% of staff identified themselves as from a BME background (up from 7.6% in 2009). Those from Black and Asian backgrounds represented 4.1% (up from 3.6% in 2009) and 2.5% (down from 2.9% in 2009) of senior level staff respectively.

Probation’s Caseload

The annual total probation caseload (court orders and pre and post release supervision) grew by 39% between 2000 and 2008, peaking at 243,434. It then marginally decreased to 234,528 in 2011.

The total of community orders fell by 8% in 2011 compared to the previous year.

Total of offenders under Probation Service supervision (at end of December), 1995-2011
Source: Offender Management Statistics Click on graphic to enlarge

Out of a total of 28,638 community orders which were terminated in the quarter ending on 30 June 2012, over two thirds (67%) were successfully completed or alternatively were terminated early for good progress.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the growth in probation’s caseload between 2000 and 2008 was propelled by

  • Introducing new court orders, in particular the Suspended Sentence Order (SSO) in 2005 (under the Criminal Justice Act 2003).
  • A rise in people receiving both pre and post-release supervision caseload due to:
    • An increase in the total of those serving prison sentences of 12+ months who need to be supervised following their release;
    • offenders who spend longer time on licence following release from prison with theCriminal Justice Act 2003

Supervision on Licence

Offenders serving a sentence of twelve months and over are released from prison (usually automatically, at the half way point of their prison sentence) and are subject licensed supervision by probation.

Between 1999 and June 2012, a total of some 590,000 offenders were released from prison on licence. Between April 1999 and June 2012, 143,000 of those released on licence were recalled to custody for breaching the conditions of their licence. This could be a result of various factors, including failure to report to their probation officer.

Of all those recalled to custody, only 976 had not been returned to custody by 30 September 2012. Of the 976 individuals, 117 were originally serving a jail sentence for offences involving violence against the person and an additional 33 people for sexual offences.

Probation is sometimes stereotyped as a service which is not sufficiently ‘tough’ on offenders.During the quarter ending June 2012, a total of 4,052 offenders had their licence revoked and were recalled. By 30 September 2012, 3,975 of these recalled offenders had been returned to custody. However, 77 had not been returned to custody.

Overall, around three quarters (76%) of orders and licences were successfully completed in 2011/12.

Probation & Community Payback

The Probation Service has operated offender behaviour programmes (for example, on domestic violence, sex offending, drug and alcohol treatment and thinking skills) for more than two decades. In addition, unpaid work is one of 12 possible requirements that may be attached a Community or Suspended Sentence Order.

While unpaid work is officially viewed primarily as a punishment, but may also fulfil the sentencing purposes of reparation and rehabilitation. The unpaid work element is known as Community Payback (previously Community Service). During 2011/12,  approximately 8.3 million hours of Community Payback work were undertaken by offenders.

The government estimates that, calculated according to the National Minimum Wage, the annual value of Community Payback work to the community is over £50 million.

Should an individual fail to comply with the terms of their community sentence, ‘National Standards for the Management of Offenders’ require the supervising probation officerto take appropriate and timely breach action.  In 2011/12, almost 95% of breaches were initiated within 10 working days.

To conclude the snapshot of probation in figures, it is worth recalling an earlier post on this blog:

“The Probation Service is one of the UK’s most vital public services, and it is high time we recognised the huge contribution that it makes to our national life. For one hundred years, the service has helped damaged and vulnerable people rehabilitate themselves and rebuild their lives, while reducing reoffending and protecting society.” – Brendan Barber, General Secretary, Trades Union Congress (Boroughs et al. , 2007:86)

Women In The Criminal Justice System

25 Nov

Interested in the representation of women and men in the criminal justice system, whether as victims, offenders or practitioners? The Ministry of Justice has published the latest edition of  its biannual report on “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System”.

The main focus is on the year 2011, but  data is also considered for the previous 5 years where possible. The Ministry publishes the report as a requirement of  Section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which imposes a duty on the government of the day to publish statistical information to assess whether discrimination exists in the criminal justice system:

“The Secretary of State shall in each year publish such information as he considers expedient for the purpose… of facilitating the performance of those engaged in the administration of justice to avoid discriminating against any persons on the ground of race or sex or any other improper ground.” (Section 95)

The figures should be considered in the context of the most recent mid-year population estimates for 2011 quoted in the report, which show that of the total of 49,509,747 population of England and Wales who are aged over 10 years, women comprised 51% of the population, while men accounted for 49%.

It may not come as a surprise that the figures confirm that there are significantly fewer women than men both subject to supervision in the community and also locked up in prison. More women, too, serve shorter sentences than men.

Some of the key findings in the report are summarised below.

Women as victims of crime

There were differences evident in the level and types of victimisation between women and men. According to the 2011/12 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) – previously known as the British Crime Survey – 3 in every 100 adults were a victim of violent crime that year. A smaller proportion of women than men interviewed reported being victims of violence (2% women and 4% men).

Women who reported being a victim of violence were most likely to be  victimised by someone with whom they were already acquainted. For men, it was more common to be on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by a stranger.

A greater percentage of women (some 7%) interviewed for the CSEW reported being victims of intimate violence (partner or family non-physical abuse, threats, force, sexual assault or stalking) than men (at 5%).

Prevalence of intimate violence in the last year among adults aged 16 to 59, 2011/12 CESW

Fewer women (201) than men (435) were murdered in 2010/11. With regard to murder, a greater percentage of female victims than male victims knew the principal suspect (78% of women victims of murder as opposed to 57%of male victims of murder).

Overall Arrests by Offence Group and Gender

Percentage of overall arrests by offence group and gender, 2006/07-2010/11 (Source: Ministry of Justice (2012), ‘Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011′)

Sentencing

Theft and handling stolen goods (which includes shoplifting) was the most common indictable offence group for which both women and men were sentenced at all courts between 2007 and 2011 (this applied over half of all women sentenced (52%) but only a third of all men sentenced (33%) for indictable offences in 2011).

Overall, a higher percentage of men(10%) than women(3%) were sentenced to immediate custody in 2011. Women also were more likely than men to be fined (77% of women as opposed to 61% of men).

Men also received longer sentences. The average custodial sentence length for all indictable offences was consistently higher for men than women. This applied throughout the period 2007-2011. In 2011 in particular, the average custodial sentence length for indictable offences was 17.7 months for men  compared to 11.6 months for women.

Average Custodial Sentence Length in months by offence group (indictable offences), 2007-2011 Source: ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System 2011′

The only indictable offence group for which females consistently received a higher average custodial sentence length than males between 2007 and 2011 was criminal damage (in 2011, 25.8 months for women as opposed to 18.2 months for men).

The percentage of both women and men sentenced to an immediate custodial sentence rises with the number of previous cautions or convictions. In 2011, 39% of men and 29% of women with 15 or more cautions or convictions were sentenced to immediate imprisonment.

A greater percentage of women in custody who had received an immediate custodial sentence were serving shorter sentences (12 months or less): 21% of women as opposed to 10% of men in 2011. For women serving prison sentences of 6 months or less,  accounted for 15% as opposed to 7% for men.

Women Subject To Supervision In The Community

In 2011, there were fewer women than men under supervision in the community. A total of 19,018 women and 106,916 men were subject to supervision as a result of a community order or Suspended Sentence Order (these are the two most common types of community sentence). Women comprised 15% of those under supervision in the community as a result of community and Suspended Sentence Orders.

The average length of community and Suspended Sentence Orders was shorter for women in 2011. In addition, women who started such supervision were commonly subject to fewer requirements to comply with than their male counterparts. In terms of order length, 14% of women supervised under a community order were supervised for less than one year. For their male counterparts, the corresponding figure was 7%.

Both women and men supervised on community orders and Suspended Sentence Orders in 2011 had different age profiles. A greater percentage of women commencing community orders (55%) and Suspended Sentence Orders (58%) were aged 30+years when compared with their male counterparts (48% for both community orders and Suspended Sentence Orders).

In 2011, a greater percentage of women completed both community orders (70% for women as opposed to 65% for men). This also applied to Suspended Sentence Orders.

Women In prison

On November 23, 2012, there were 4,174 women in prison in England and Wales. The number of women prisoners increased during the decade ending in 2010 by around 27%. On 30 June 2011, women represented 5% of the total prison population of 85,374 inmates. According to the Prison Reform Trust, over half (51%) of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year. For those serving shorter sentences (less than 12 months) this rises to 62%.

Population in prison establishments under immediate custodial sentence by gender, as at 30 June 2007–2011 Source: ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System 2011′

In 2011, there were 24,648 incidents of self-harm in prisons. The rate for female self-harm in prison continues to register more than 10 times higher than the rate for men.

In addition, women who self-harmed in 2011 did so more often than men (an average of 7.1 incidents compared to 2.8 incidents for each individual self- harming), though incidents of male self harm were more likely to result in hospitalisation.

There are 630 women prisoners in England and Wales who are foreign nationals. They represent approximately 15% of the women’s prison population. On 30 June 2011, a larger percentage of foreign national women prisoners were incarcerated for drugs offences (39%) and fraud and forgery (14%) than British national women (18% and 3% respectively).

British national women prisoners wee more often incarcerated for offences of violence against the person (29%) or robbery (10%) than foreign national women prisoners (for whom the respective figures are 13% and 3%).

Of the the total of  329 self-inflicted deaths in prison in England and Wales between 2007 and 2011, the vast majority (95%) were men and five per cent (or 15) involved women). This, however, mirrors the gender representation in the prison population.

In 2011, women prisoners were more likely to be subject to the disciplinary process than men. The rate of offences punished in prison establishments was higher for females (130 offences were punished per 100 female prisoners)than for males (with 106 offences punished per 100 male prisoners.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the government qualifies the report by noting that:

“The identification of differences should not be equated with discrimination as there are many reasons why apparent disparities may exist.”

References:

MINISTRY OF JUSTICE (2012), Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011 London: Ministry of Justice.

California’s Death Penalty – On The Way Out?

13 Nov

The death penalty is currently a legal sentence in 37 states in the USA (as well as in the federal criminal justice system). The list of states which retain the death penalty includes America’s most populous state, California. When America voted to re-elect President Barack Obama on November 6, 2012, the state of California also voted to retain the death penalty.

Voters rejected Proposition 34, an initiative which would have replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, albeit by a narrow margin. While 52.8% voted to keep the death penalty, 47.2% voted to abolish it. Proposition 34 also required inmates sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole to work to enable them to pay restitution to victims’ families. It also allocate approximately $30 million per year for three years to police departments, specifically to solve murder and rape cases which remained open. However, the measure was still unsuccessful.

While on the face of it this is a vote for the death penalty, it nevertheless may be indicative of a broader trend of changing attitudes to capital punishment throughout America. When voters expressed a view on capital punishment in California some 34 years earlier, some 71% supported the death penalty.

Legal executions in have been undertaken in California since they first authorised under the state’s Criminal Practices Act of 1851 (with a brief hiatus from 1972 to 1976). Since then, executions have been undertaken by firing squad, hanging, and lethal gas. Since 1993, the preferred method of execution has been lethal injection.

In recent years, however, California’s use of the death penalty is gradually declining. While there are currently 726 inmates on the state’s Death row (which makes it the largest death row in America), the reality is that no prisoner has actually been executed since 2006.California accommodates almost a quarter of the entire death row population in America. It is also noteworthy that figures from the  National Registry of Exonerations confirm that California tops the list of states with wrongful convictions.

Executions were suspended in California in February, 2006 as a result of a federal judge concluding that the state’s execution process was flawed

A condemned prisoner had argued that inadequate training for those administering the death penalty and the poor conditions in the death chamber at San Quentin prison amounted to a “cruel and unusual punishment”. ( The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution lays down that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted”. TNew procedures were drafted by the California Department of Corrections, and the death chamber was revamped, but the moratorium is due to continue for another year.

A total of 13 people convicted of murder have been executed by the state of California following the resumption of capital punishment after the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Gregg v. Georgia. In 11 of these cases, the method of execution has been lethal injection. The problematic nature of the administration of the death penalty in California is underlined by records of how prisoners on death row have died since 1976:

  • 57 condemned prisoners have died from natural causes
  • 20 condemned prisoners have committed suicide
  • 6 condemned prisoners have died from “other causes”
  • 13 condemned prisoners have actually been executed in California (11 by lethal injection, and two by gas)

The reality, then, is that more prisoners on death row have died from natural causes or from suicide than from the death penalty.

Current opponents of the death penalty in California have located their arguments in the context of the current fiscal austerity. It is estimated that California has spent some $4 billion on the administration of the death penalty since capital punishment resumed in 1977. The state now has an annual expenditure of approximately $184 million on the death penalty. The cost of legal representation, special trials and death row accommodation continues to rise. It is estimated that it will cost a further $1 billion over the next 5 years. It is a continuing paradox that, while millions of dollars are spent on the death penaly each years, the reality is that more death row prisoners die of old age than die due to leathal injection.

Those called upon to administer the death penalty have recorded the immense psychological stresses which it places upon them. One former executioner has spoken of he finally sought help after seeing the dead men he executed sitting on the side of his bed at night.

While it appears that the popular support for the death penalty is California is gradually being eroded, it is also clear that it may take some time for the tipping point in electoral support which will lead to the abolition of the death penalty to be reached.

Prisoners and the Right To Vote in the UK & the USA

4 Nov

“It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison. Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote.” 

– David Cameron, during Prime Ministers Question Time, November 3, 2010.

David Cameron’s position on voting rights for prisoners has the merit of consistency. Asked a question in the House of Commons some two years ago about whether the incarceration of convicted prisoners should result in a loss of inmates’ rights, he responded that voting rights for prisoners made him “physically ill”.

Since then, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK must end its ban on votes for prisoners after the government lost its ultimate appeal.

David Cameron has now pledged once again at prime minister’s questions that his coalition government would never give the prisoners the right to vote. While government now has around three weeks to decide its response to the European court ruling, the prime minister’s insistence last month that “No one should be under any doubt – prisoners are not getting the vote under this government” leaves little doubt about the substance of that official reaction.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC that “It is very clear that most people in the political world in the UK don’t want to give votes to prisoners.”

However, the scale of disenfranchisement in the United States leaves the UK looking positively benevolent. America’s entrenched commitment to mass incarceration and a punitive penal system has long been acknowledged by criminologists. While the nation is home to just 1 in 20 of the world’s population, it imprisons no less than quarter of the whole world’s prison population, with a staggering total of 2.3 million of its citizens behind bars.

One element of American penality will play a key role in the forthcoming presidential election. When voters go the polls this Tuesday, an astonishing total of 5.85 million Americans will be forbidden to exercise the fundamental democratic right to vote. They have been stripped of that right because of what it officially labelled “felon disenfranchisement” – that is, those laws which restricting voting rights for anyone convicted of a criminal offence labelled as a “felony”.

Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? 5.85 million people have no say in the
Presidential Election, due to felony disenfranchisement
(creative commons licence)

A range of state laws bar both felons and in some cases ex-felons from the right to vote. Approximately three quarters of those who are disenfranchised are no longer even behind bars, but are subject to probation supervision or on parole.

Surprisingly for a UK observer, most disenfranchised American citizens are not actually in prison. Almost half of the total number of those barred from voting have already served their full sentence, and are no longer subject to the supervision of the correctional services.

According to the Sentencing Project, ex-offenders in the eleven US states which disenfranchise people after they have served their sentences comprise almost 45 percent of the total of the population denied the right to vote. According to research by the Sentencing Project, an American criminal justice campaigning group which promoting reforms in sentencing policy:

“The number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and over 5.85 million in 2010.”

In short, 1 of every 40 adults of the USA’s total population of voting age is denied the right to vote due to a current (or previous) conviction for a felony. By my calculations, if the UK was to disenfranchise offenders at a similar rate, we would deny the right to vote around 1.15 million UK offenders and ex-offenders.

The dynamic of race plays a significant role felony disenfranchisement. The harsh reality that US imprisonment rates are disproportionately higher for African American men may hardly come as a shock, considering that America was embroiled in a civil war over the continuation of  slavery until just two lifetimes ago.

African American males are imprisoned at a rate of six times that of their white counterparts. More than two million black citizens are subject to the control of the correctional system, whether in custody, on probation, or on parole. This systematic network of what has been labelled as “racialized social control” (Alexander 2011:20) also encompasses voting rights.

It is astonishing to learn that now less that 1 in every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised. This is a rate over four times higher than the rate for non-African Americans.

In three states (Florida, Kentucky and Virginia), more than one in five black citizens is denied the right to vote. The disproportionate representation of African Americans within the US penal system means that felony disenfranchisement has a significant impact on the representation of African Americans in the US political system.

There is some evidence that African Americans vote predominantly for Democratic candidates. In a presidential election which promises to be as tightly fought as the current one, African American disenfranchisement may significantly impact the Democratic vote.

Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted description of democracy in the United States as embodying “government of the people, by the people, for the people” rings somewhat hollow to almost six million citizens denied the right to vote.

References

ALEXANDER, M. (2011) ‘The New Jim Crow’, The American Prospect, pp. 19-21, Washington: The Justice Policy Institute.

UGGEN, C., SHANNON, S. & MANZA, J. (2012), State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010. Washington DC: The Sentencing Project.

WOOD, E. (2008), Restoring the right to vote. New York: Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Community Sentences: A Problem With Perception?

18 Mar

“For too long community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, a soft option. This government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment.” – The Prime Minister, March 2012

English: David Cameron's picture on the 10 Dow...

Prime Minister David Cameron

The government has announced more details of their plans to ‘toughen up’ community sentencing options. The ‘virtual prison’, as this blog has observed, trumps the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. New measures are now imminent, and may be formally announced in the Queen’s speech in May. They are reported to include:

  • Hi-tech electronic ankle tags (so-called “sobriety bracelets”) that can confirm whether the wearer has been drinking alcohol by measuring the wearer’s air and perspiration.
  • Electronic tags using GPS satellite technology which will monitor the exact geographical location of offenders using electronic tags, 24 hours a day.

These moves reflect an increased emphasis on punishment, with American style surveillance & control to the fore and rehabilitation being de-prioritised. The Prime Minister explicitly stated that community sentences lack ‘toughness’.

Probation could arguably do more to ensure that its public and political image accurately reflects the high quality and effectiveness of its intervention. Probation minister Crispin Blunt delineated the problem with his observation in February 2012:

“There is an issue around public confidence in community sentences. The public may feel that a person has got away with it with a community sentence.”

This, the minister argued, was not primarily about the reality of community sentences, but rather about how they are perceived. He qualified his comments by stating that:

“Community sentences can be extremely intensive and very demanding”.

While Blunt focused on the perception of community sentences, Prime Minister David Cameron concluded that community sentencing’s image was not just a product of perception, but also a reflection of reality:

“For too long community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, a soft option. This government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment. Criminals given a community punishment should not just be able to enjoy life as it was before [doing] their sentence.”

This government strategy is not new. It was presaged by a 2010 report by the Policy Exchange (reputedly David Cameron’s favourite thinktank), which portrayed community sentences as the “weak link in the sentencing chain”. According to the report:

“… community sentences fail because they are fundamentally flawed, poorly administered and confused in their purpose. To be made better, community sentences first need to be refocused back to their core function of punishment and then radically reformed to improve compliance and administration.”

Top civil servant Louise Casey argued in the foreword to this report that it was “imperative” that community sentences were radically overhauled. She wrote:

“Central to this is the need to ensure that one of the foremost tenets of sentencing is no longer ignored in community sentences – and that is punishment. How on earth can we expect victims of crime and the public at large to back such reforms if they, rightly, have little confidence that community sentences actually punish wrongdoers?”

Casey even went so far as to suggest that some probation staff “see punishment at best as an optional extra and at worst as a dirty word”.

Society’s need for credible and effective community sentences has never been greater. Today, we have 87,870 people in prison in England and Wales. We imprison proportionately more of our citizens than any other country in Western Europe. The probation service supervised a total of 232,862 people on 30 September, 2011 – over two and a half times as many people as we imprison.

Community sentences are widely used by the Courts in England and Wales. In the year ending September 2011, no fewer than 178,763 people (or 13.6% of all those sentenced) were given a Community Sentence.

Thirteen in every hundred people sentenced at magistrates’ courts during this year were given a community sentences. Eighteen in every hundred people sentenced at Crown Court were also given a community sentence.

The fiscal case for community sentencing is strong. The average annual cost of imprisoning one inmate, according to Hansard,  is approximately £45,000 per annum. We can supervise up to 15 people on probation for a year for same cost. Probation’s domestic violence courses, for example, cost under £6,300 but help achieve a reduction in reoffending of up to one third.

A successful community sentencing policy, therefore, will not just safeguard society by significantly reducing reoffending. It will save taxpayers a huge amount of money.

The evidence suggests that community sentences are effective in reducing reoffending, particularly when compared to shorter prison sentences. Providing factual, accurate information about such sentences helps build greater public confidence in our justice system.

A well-informed public is less likely to automatically assume that community sentences lack toughness, or that community disposals are, in effect, a ‘let off’ for defendants. This public view of probation was confirmed by my own 2002 analysis of how public perceptions of community sentencing were constructed during one particular high profile example involving the footballer Jonathan Woodgate.

When Woodgate received a community penalty, the press (broadsheets included) were unanimous in equating the sentence to “walking free from court”, “escaping a prison sentence”, “avoiding prison”, receiving a “paltry” sentence, and so on. The exhaustive press coverage left the public in blissful ignorance of what community sentencing actually involved, other than the offender being freed.

Presumably, headlines such as “Committed probation staff deliver evidence-based intervention to reduce offending and safeguard the public” would were not thought to be sufficiently circulation boosting.

Probation is a key statutory justice agency but despite the scale of its endeavour, its impact on public awareness is limited. The average person in the street is mainly unaware of the scale of its essential contribution to public protection and rehabilitation.

This is not a new problem. I remember Beverley Hughes, then probation Minister in Tony Blair’s Labour administration, delivering her keynote address in 2001 to the new National Probation Service in London. I recorded her words for a piece which was published in the Probation Journal:

‘Public credibility is crucial to our success. Only if, together, we can convince communities of your role and your reliability will you be able to do your important job effectively’.

This remains true today. Perceptions of probation will only begin to advance when the political and public understanding of probation starts to echo its success in practice.

China’s Death Penalty

11 Mar
The main entrance to the Supreme People's Cour...

Main entrance, Supreme People's Court of the People's Republic of China (Creative Commons)

China has a cultural history of punishment which is both swift and severe, in order to ensure the masses are educated to avoid crime.

Reality TV shows have long been a magnet for millions of viewers in the UK. However, what attracts viewers in their droves for prime time Saturday viewing in central China reflects a different kind of reality altogether.

For the last five years, some forty million viewers in central China’s Henan province been transfixed each week by interviews carried out with condemned inmates immediately prior to their execution.

“Interviews Before Execution” is presented by the journalist Ding Yu. The Chinese government is reported to have approved the programme as they believed it would serve as a deterrent to offending. Interviewees were selected by a judiciary committee as “suitable subjects to educate the public.”

Ding Yu has interviewed more than 200 condemned Chinese prisoners, days – or sometimes only hours – before they are executed. If the aim of the programme was to bring China’s death penalty to the public’s attention, it has certainly succeeded. The programme has topped the ratings.

The programme may be about to be abruptly cut from the television schedules. The TV company in the Henan province that produced the programme for over 5 years has confirmed to Western news organisations that the show has been terminated due to unspecified “internal problems”.

While further clarification was unforthcoming, this happened in a context of the spotlight of international news focusing on the programmme. The programme may have represented an embarassment to a modernising regime. The BBC is broadcasting a film which includes excerpts from the Chinese programme.

The dynamics of gender and the death penalty in China are instructive. Almost half of those interviewed by Ding Yu were female. A significant proportion weremothers.

We know that the death penalty in the People’s Republic of China is relatively widely used. While Iran, for example, has a proportionally higher execution rate when size of the population is taken into account, China is widely agreed to execute the greatest number of people every year. This is hardly surprising, given that a quarter of the planet’s population live in China.

The Washington Post has calculated that, on a per-capita basis, China has carried out approximately 30 times more executions than the USA.

In 2010 Amnesty International was not able to provide definitive confirmation on the numbers of those executed in China. The government does not supply an official tally of those who are subject to capital punishment.  While the figure remains a state secret, it is generally agreed to number in the thousands.

The use of the death penalty may reflect a deep rooted cultural belief in China which supports capital punishment for its perceived deterrent and retributive qualities. The death penalty in China has been a state penal sanction for many centuries. Its use has been recorded by historians since the 16th century BC and the Shang dynasty.

The death penalty remained the ultimate penal sanction following the Communists coming to power in 1949. Mass public sentencing rallies attended by thousands of people  (in some ways reminiscent of Mao’s mass struggle) were not uncommon. The condemned prisoner were publicly denounced before being promptly executed.

This has been commonly referred to in China as the practice of  ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkey'; that is, to deter potential criminality. Despite the gruesome and public nature of the spectacle, it did not appear to deter serious crime. Following the economic reforms of 1978, crime rates shot up.

Communist Party policy has both informed and influenced the Chinese approach to capital punishment. Following China’s ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns, which have presaged thousands of executions (we do not know exactly how many thousands), matched by the ‘kill many’ approach which commenced around 3 decades ago, China eventually began to gradually shift to the kill fewer policy stance in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century.

Trevaskes, a leading criminologist, has observed that while the ‘Strike Hard’ campaign was designed to ensure ‘severe and swift’ punishment for offenders, the currently policy reflects the twin imperatives which comprise the current  ‘Balancing Leniency and Severity’ policy.

In essence, rather than ‘kill many’, the policy may be about ‘killing fewer’ – though not, so far, about abolishing the death penalty and killing none at all.

Trevaskes describes one particular trial in 2001, when two men were convicted of murdering a total of 12 people in the course of a series of robberies. She records that the whole trial was over in less than one hour, and most of that short period was occupied simply by reading the indictment. The two defendants were condemned to death, and were immediately executed.

Trevaskes records that in a period lasting just 3 months in 2001, a total of 1,781 death sentences were officially reported to have been carried out (the actual total may have been considerably more).

In 2004, the Supreme People’s Court aimed to implement a more restricted use of capital punishment and supported a move ‘to balance leniency and severity’ and to ‘kill fewer, kill cautiously’. Effectively this amounted to a clear attempt to limit the use of the death penalty.

Until 2011, the Chinese legal system listed a total of 68 separate offences which carried the death penalty. That list was decreased to 55 offences in 2011, when the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed an amendment which dropped 13 offences from those that had previously been eligible for capital punishment. The amendment also ended the execution of anyone aged 75 or over.

As the Dui Hua foundation (based in California, a state which ironically currently has over 700 prisoners currently languishing on death row) presciently observed in 2010 :

“Of more lasting significance (than the actual amendment)  may be the public discussion that the proposed revision generates, discussion that could lead to more fundamental change in the way that Chinese people think about capital punishment and, perhaps, the frequency with which China puts its citizens to death.”

The Chinese legal code states that it only applies the  death penalty shall only be applied to those who have committed serious crimes. There is also what amounts to a type of probationary death sentence in use. If the immediate execution of a defendant for an offence punishable by death is not considered necessary, the death sentence can be suspended for two years.

Following good behaviour for those two years, the death penalty may be commuted to either life imprisonment. or a shorter prison term.

Some of those offences are not punishable by the death penalty in any other country in the world. For example, economic crimes including tax offences, theft, and corruption have attracted capital punishment, as well as murder. The death sentence for Chinese officials convicted of corruption is not unknown.

In 2009, a woman named Wu Ying was sentenced to death for illegal fundraising. She had raised 770m yuan (£79m) fraudulently from 11 different people. The Supreme Court of China has commented that her sentence would be reviewed “cautiously”, which may indicate that attitudes to the death penalty – at least, for financial offences – may be beginning to change.

Zhu Yongxin, vice president of the Chinese Society of Education, offered qualified support for China’s use of capital punishment earlier this month:

“The conditions for abolishing the death penalty are not yet sufficient. Although 139 other countries have annulled the death penalty, Chinese law still insists on it because the country has a 4,000-year tradition of capital punishment and the people here think ‘whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’ is a self-evident truth.”

“It’s also because social security is not optimistic and the crime rate is still relatively high. In my view, the death penalty should be limited as much as possible and not be meted out on economic crimes.”

Further Reading: Trevaskes, Susan (2010): Policing Serious Crime In China: From ‘Strike Hard’ To ‘Kill Fewer’ (London and New York: Routledge, 2010)

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