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Playing with numbers

Peter Gillson | Published:

TO DATE I have kept away from writing about Home, largely because I was its minister and readers may question my objectivity.

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However, having suggested part of the recent governance report on the Committee for Home Affairs seemed a little superficial, I feel it’s necessary for me to expand on that comment, justifying that opinion.

Before I explain in detail, it is worth noting that I am not in a position to comment on the dynamics within the meetings, the relationship between deputies and staff, or the level of strategic planning. I am not trying to defend the committee, merely offer an objective viewpoint.

The report states: ‘The Committee is to be commended for commissioning a justice review, although it has done so too late in the life of the Committee for it to be able to act on any recommendations.’

The report continues, quite rightly, stating: ‘The efficient and effective functioning of the criminal justice system is a key strategic responsibility of the Committee…’, and then adds a criticism: ‘… and it should have been the focus of their attention much earlier in this term because of the current extraordinarily high levels and costs of imprisonment in Guernsey’.

In effect, what the report is saying is that we have a comparatively high prison population, therefore there is something wrong with our criminal justice system, therefore the committee should have commissioned a strategic review a lot earlier.

The internationally accepted way of comparing the prison populations of different countries is a ratio of the number of prisoners per 100,000 people in the population. All the numbers I use have been established on this basis.

The report notes the prison population in the UK is 139 per 100,000, in Denmark it is 63, while the figure for Guernsey is 170.

Clearly, having a prison population factor substantially higher than the UK and Denmark supports stating that our levels are ‘extraordinarily high’. Slam dunk – the committee are at fault and therefore have shown a lack of strategic direction in not commissioning a review earlier.

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Guilty as charged.

Well, perhaps not, if you look a little deeper.

The first question I asked myself was: how representative is the figure of 170?

The website referenced in the report states it was the figure for Guernsey at the end of October 2018.

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The monthly population statistics published by our prison detail figures going back to January 2013. These show that October 2018 was the highest in the period January 2013 to June 2019.

Was it fair to use a population number which is the highest in the last six years as the basis for drawing conclusions?

Interestingly, the UK figure was much more recent, as at the end of April 2019. At that time our population was 150, and in May it was down to 138.

Comparing figures on comparable dates shows our population to be pretty similar to the UK prison population – certainly not ‘extraordinarily high’.

The figure for Barbados is 300 and the USA is 655.

There is one further twist in the comparison: we know UK prisons are overcrowded. Indeed, the international report says they are running at 110% capacity.

Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that sentencing in the UK is being constrained by the lack of capacity and if the UK had more prisons, the courts would fill them, thereby increasing their ratio above 138.

We actually know why our numbers are higher than the UK – our courts take a harder line than the UK in relation to drugs and people here are given custodial sentences for crimes which would not attract custodial sentences in the UK.

Currently there are 52 people in Les Nicolles prison for drug-related crimes. I am sure some of these crimes would result in prison sentences in the UK, but a large proportion would not, and adjusting for these brings our ratio a lot closer to the UK, possibly below the UK.

I know what you are thinking: ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’. Anything can be proven with numbers and all I have done is play with numbers.

Yes, but that is the point I am making. Statistics need to be used with care and comparing snapshot numbers off a website and drawing conclusions without any deeper consideration does seem to be a bit superficial.

There is one area which does need to be reviewed, interestingly not mentioned in the report: the number of people serving short prison sentences rather than having non-custodial sentences, such as community service. Hopefully the Criminal Justice Review commissioned by the committee will consider this aspect.

On the face of it, the committee has taken a long time to commission the justice review so perhaps the report’s criticism is fair.

The problem is that without the context of how the committee prioritised all of its work, it is difficult to know if they are at fault.

For instance, if they just ignored criminal justice, then that would be poor governance. If, however, they considered it and decided that other matters had a greater priority for their limited resources, then that would be a matter of political judgement rather than poor governance.

Unfortunately, the report does not give that context so it is impossible to tell which, if either, is the case.

Since the only minutes reviewed were for the period between 10 October 2018 and 28 December 2018, I do wonder if this was checked.

Those are just two examples of why I think my comment about the report being a bit superficial in places is justified.

My next column will consider the role of Policy & Resources.

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