The College looked absolutely fabulous, bathed in spring sunshine, on March 10th 2015 when we hosted a wonderfully stimulating conference on behalf of the Criminal Justice Alliance. Entitled An agenda for the new Government, and chaired by HH Judge John Samuels, speakers were encouraged to come with bullet-point ideas.

The first speaker was Tapio Leppi Seppala, Head of the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, at the University of Helsinki who used powerful graphs to illustrate his point that prisons do not reduce crime: whilst the English and Welsh prison population has doubled in the last thirty years, the Finnish prison population has moved in exactly the opposite direction. Yet the recorded crime figures in both countries are remarkably similar. He showed how a new government might develop a successful decarceration strategy: they would have to start by defining a high incarceration rate as a significant problem at a political level, and to maintain a long term commitment to reducing both sentence and re-offending levels.

Tapio was followed by Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, whose message was deeply troubling: the prison service is so squeezed for money that the ‘offender management’ function has more or less collapsed. The need for more purposeful activities and resettlement support, whilst obvious, is being allowed to disappear as prisons struggle to manage from day to day. His accounts of recent inspections gave graphic illustrations of the reality of the challenges faced in prisons ‘on the wings’.

Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms, Emeritus Wolfson Professor of Criminology at Cambridge, Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam (and Fellow since 1984), presented some blunt messages from the ‘desistance’ research (including his own Sheffield study).

  1. Most offenders (even most persistent offenders) desist, and they do so largely on their own initiative.
  2. Most persistent offenders would like to lead a normal life.
  3. Factors influencing “pathways into crime” are not necessarily the same as factors influencing “pathways out of crime” (“asymmetrical causation”).
  4. Desistance is often a gradual process.
  5. Desistance is often an obstacle-strewn process.
  6. The focus on desistance is not in conflict with the “what works” movement’.

From these, he drew three clear messages for the incoming Government:

  1. Work harder at incorporating desistance insights into rehabilitative practice
  2. The age range 20-25 is the period of fastest deceleration in offending among recidivist offenders. Criminal justice policy and practice therefore needs to recognise more fully the special needs of this age group, as recently advocated by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance.
  3. Desistance is, for most offenders, a gradual process, which means that a fresh conviction is a not uncommon event as an offender gradually reduces his/her frequency of offending. The Sentencing Council should be asked to consider the implications of this evidence for the sentencing of offenders where there is clear evidence of attempts to desist – especially as regards the ‘Recidivist Premium’.

I came next and argued that significant change could be effected if we started to think more about sentencing as an on-going process, and not as a one-off event , a single moment in court. Thinking ‘holistically’ about sentencing led me to suggest three ideas:

  1. a presumption against short terms of imprisonment
  2. a clearer distinction between suspended sentences of imprisonment and community orders
  3. a greater focus on that part of a custodial sentence which is served in the community.

Professor Larry Sherman, current Director of the Institute of Criminology, spoke with his usual passion on the need to focus policing on key areas of need. He reminded the audience that the purpose of policing was to prevent crime, not to prosecute offenders and that their focus should be on reducing serious crime, with seriousness measured seriously on a crime/harm index.

HRH The Princess Royal meets staff at Fitzwilliam College.

HRH The Princess Royal meets staff at Fitzwilliam College.

As the audience broke into different workshops, the College welcomed HRH the Princess Royal. During her two hours in Fitz, she met a number of Fellows, staff and students, attended two different workshops and presented the certificates to winners of the Criminal Justice Alliance’s awards for innovation in penal practice. Her very real interest in the subject matter of the conference was obvious.

Let us hope that the new Government is as keen to listen, to think and to digest the implications of the clear messages presented throughout the day!



HRH The Princess Royal with Master Nicky Padfield at Fitzwilliam College on 10 March 2015.

HRH The Princess Royal with Master Nicky Padfield at Fitzwilliam College on 10 March 2015.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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