Criminology, relevance and explanation

There are two issues I want to comment on here, both of which come out of a conversation I had recently. One is the ‘relevance’ of qualifications in criminology and the other is the nature of criminological explanation.


If you’re reading this, the likelihood is you’re doing a criminology programme, or thinking about taking one. This means you’ll have thought about questions like ‘why do I want to do criminology?’ and ‘will it have any vocational use?’.

Why anyone wants to study criminology is a matter for them. I got involved in the 1980s, before most undergraduate criminology degree courses had started. My own degree is in sociology and I worked with people whose qualifications were in, among other things, psychology, history, law, geography, social policy, anthropology, languages, business studies and a few other things besides.

At that time the view within academia was that criminology was only really suitable for teaching either as a module or two within another degree (e.g. the psychology of offending, the history of law enforcement, social control in different cultures) or at a masters level, where people who possessed an academic ‘discipline’ could focus in on a particular set of social issues.

All this changed in the 1980s and 1990s, and criminology and criminal justice studies undergraduate degrees became common. The thing about these degrees – and the thing you need to remember if you take one – is that they are ‘syncretic’ degrees that will borrow a lot of material from other more established academic disciplines.

That doesn’t disparage or invalidate criminology as a subject of study, because there are plenty of syncretic degrees out there; you’d face the same issues if you wanted to take environmental sciences, water management, media studies and so on. What it does mean is that you have to accept you’ll need to dip into a bunch of different disciplines, each with their own history, and try to make sense of them.

People took undergraduate degrees in criminology and criminal justice because, often, they figured they were ‘relevant’ to what they wanted to do after graduation – work in law enforcement, for example. But that was always a questionable assumption. Criminal justice agencies typically have their own recruitment programmes, provide their own in-house training and send people to programmes run by specialist organisations and consortia when they’ve achieved some level of seniority.

A criminology degree is useful in so far as it offers a greater understanding of offending, victimisation, criminal justice and so on – and for that matter a more acute understanding of what it is and isn’t possible to explain, because mostly it works at the level of explaining crime rates rather than the actions of individuals. However, this contextual knowledge can be more frustrating than useful if you’re in a position where your own actions are determined by organisational rules and procedures, while potential solutions to policy problems may lie entirely outside your own organisation.

It’s worth noting that the UCAS (UK universities’ combined application system) criminology web page refers to careers in the police, prisons, probation, law, the civil service and related private-sector employers. However, and perhaps strangely, once you’ve done your degree and look at a site like, the main graduate employment advice website in the UK, it doesn’t even mention employment in crime-related areas on the first page of its website entry for criminology. Instead it says:

You develop core transferable skills which are attractive to a variety of employers. These include research skills, written and oral communication, time management and planning, working to deadlines, IT skills and the ability to work productively both in a group and autonomously.

(OK, if you go to page 2 of the entry it does list a bunch of careers in policing, community work and so forth – but the structure of ‘transferable skills on the first page, criminal justice jobs on the second’ doesn’t exactly make these career options into headline news.)

So the best possible motive for studying criminology is probably the old-fashioned one, not because it’s ‘relevant’ to some future career choice but because it interests you. After all, the current view is that most of us will have have at least two or three careers in the course of our working lives.


What kinds of things do you need to know, what kinds of knowledge are you likely to have to get to grips with, if you study criminology?

The answer you’re most likely to get is ‘it depends’. And here’s why.

Scientific enquiry of most types revolves around the related ideas of an explanandum and an explanans.

The explanandum (a term carried over from Latin) is the thing that needs to be explained. The explanans (same derivation) is the explanation.

So far as criminology is concerned, crime is the explanandum. So what about the explanans? What are the factors and theories we’re going to rely on in order to explain why people commit crime, or whatever?

They’re likely to be the same kinds of things that might explain why people do anything at all: why they buy (or don’t buy) fast food, why they enjoy (or don’t enjoy) sports or music or dancing or driving fast or drugs or sex, and a million other things that people do. They’re likely to revolve around culture and politics and economics and people’s perceptions of their place in the world, their opportunities, their probems, and so on; and they’re likely to be influenced by their upbringing, their education, their income, the people around them, and a whole lot of other stuff that’s going on in their lives.

So a criminologist needs to understand crime, the thing to be explained, very well. But she or he also needs to understand all these other things, the explanatory factors, in at least as much detail.

So: what kinds of things do you need to know, what kinds of knowledge are you likely to have to get to grips with, if you study criminology? It depends on what you see as relevant explanatory factors. And, broadly speaking, you need to know everything about how those factors work and how they affect people’s lives and choices.

In my time as a researcher I wound up looking at all kinds of social issues, from the everyday lives of homeless people to the impact of economic growth on developing economies. And I had to put at least as much effort into understanding these things, as explanatory factors, as I did into understanding the crime patterns I was interested in and wanted to explain. If you want to explain crime, be prepared to spend a lot of time working with the factors that explain it and the academic disciplines that address those factors.

Obvious points? Yes they are. But despite being obvious, they can easily be forgotten!

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Criminological motivation

Why study crime?

Crime, as most novels and TV programme will tell you, is a product of motivation, means and opportunity. Explaining crime is more complicated, because as criminologists we might be interested in the trends that result in more (or fewer) people seeming to have the motivation, means or opportunity, but it’s a reasonable starting point for thinking about criminology.

Criminology doesn’t have the same limitations on means and opportunity; pretty much anyone with the motivation can find a way to pursue an interest in the who, how and why of crime and criminal justice policy. There are enough books, websites, news sources and open-access datasets out there. Plus, some of the best-known studies started because people with an interest in crime and deviance ‘bumped into’ interesting issues via their own lifestyle (for example, as a jazz musician or a pool player) or their own life experiences – respectively, Howard S Becker’s Outsiders; Ned Polsky’s Hustlers, Beats and Others; and Elizabth Stanko’s Everyday Violence.

The important issue is motivation. And like anything else, the study of crime can be prompted by a wide range of motives.

There are relatively few people (so far as I know) who study it in any structured way simply because it fascinates them. I don’t say that disparagingly: most people, probably, have some fascination for crime and there’s certainly a large market for ‘true crime’ stories, police procedural novels, documentaries, biographies of well-known murders and the like.

In general terms, people study criminology because crime has become important to them in some way, and/or because they want to make a difference to society: to reduce crime, help victims (or prevent them becoming victims), reform or rehabilitate offenders, and so on. These are all aims worth applauding – but they’re not easy aims to achieve.

The intention to ‘make a difference’ comes with certain responsibilities.

One is a responsibility to try to understand how social, cultural, economic, political and psychological processes work in practice, and to acknowledge that they may not work in reality in the way that we might like or expect them to. If the evidence tells you something that you weren’t expecting, you can’t ignore the evidence – you’ll want to look harder at how it makes sense.

A second, linked to this, is to see moral opinions as subjects for analysis rather than a starting point for it. This is true even if part of your motivation comes from personal experience, because you can’t start from the position of assuming that your own experiences are typical or representative of others, or indeed that they capture the whole complex situation. Yes, of course they might: but you can’t assume it. Achieving this distance from moral opinion is more difficult than you might think.

Let’s take an example. Over the last 15 years or so, in the UK, there has been a great deal of concern and debate about ‘antisocial behaviour’ – the kind of uncivil and aggressive behaviour that’s often characterised in terms of drinking, drug-taking, shouted insults and intimidation, fights and vandalism. Concerns have included the idea that it’s a precursor to crime or a label that is in fact applied to matters that previously would have been treated as crime; that those involved see ‘antisocial behaviour orders’ as a ‘badge of honour’ among their peers, that it’s the result of a breakdown in family discipline that’s led to ‘feral youths’. There are many other claims as well, and it has resulted in an extensive body of research work.

The point is, though, that if we start to research antisocial behaviour starting from those images, assumptions and moral standpoints, we’re collecting data to fit the stereotype. It’s the equivalent, in terms of police dramas on TV, of deciding who the offender is and looking only for evidence that points to that person. What we really need to do is acknowledge that there will be a multiplicity of competing points of view and moral stances held by different people, be aware of what evidence people use to support their positions, but also start to scope out the range of evidence available and what additional material might be obtainable in order to create a more complete and coherent view of what’s happening, why, and (maybe) which policies are likely to have which effects.

In the UK, the whole issue of dealing with antisocial behaviour is in the process of being reorganised. If this topic interests you, you might want to look at the 2012 government White Paper, ‘Putting victims first – more effective responses to antisocial behaviour‘ available from the Home Office website (there’s also a news report summarising it on the BBC website.)

A third responsibility of criminologists is to pay attention to the evidence.

I’d add a fourth responsibility: evidence never stands by itself, and there’s never enough of it. In criminology, as in the social sciences generally (and to some extent in other disciplines as well) we have to deal with uncertainty. At some points, we won’t have data available and we have to make the best informed judgement we can. And we use criminological theories as structures that enable us to stitch together the available evidence and create a coherent account of what’s going on and why.

Theories, of course, pose a range of problems of their own. They don’t constitute a stable body of unchanging and authoritative ‘knowledge’. They’re more like narratives about human nature, debates about the interpretation of evidence, and suggestions for how evidence can and shouhld be structured and what should be considered potentially relevant.

If that sounds like it isn’t science, think again. Think of the history of physics – in particular, quantum mechanics – from its roots in the work of e.g. Faraday, to Einstein; the work of people like Pauli and Planck and Dirac and Heisenberg, and then on to atomic and subatomic phsyics, to Grand Unified Theory, and to attempts to prove a particular view of the universe by discovering the Higgs Boson (predicted by theoretical work in the 1960s and still not empirically discovered). It’s a history of exploration based on theoretical predictions, of data leading to propositions that test imagination, and abstract imaginings being used to test particular aspects of ‘reality’. Those involved were exploring different aspects of the physical world, trying to link their work with others, and they weren’t always right first time. Why should criminology be any different?

I’d add a fifth and final responsibility. Like any phsyician, do no harm. The underlying intention of criminology is, at least for most criminologists, most of the time, to seek social gain. And it seems a good principle to abide by.

What I’ve written above is a brief and crude summary of a range of issues round why some of us ‘do criminology’ and consider it important. It’s brief and crude because it glosses over a range of issues about social versus individual explanations, about explaining structures versus trends, about what kinds of things count as ‘evidence’, the role of research methods, the nature of theory, the possibility of an ‘objective’ interpretation of data, and some more sophisticated ‘postmodernist’ positions on the role of criminology in society and the kinds of interventions it can make in policy. These are all matters that will have to wait for other blog posts.

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The beginnings of a criminology FAQ

I started this blog quite a while back with the idea that I’d comment on issues in criminology, on an occasional basis. Then real life intervened, other projects happened, and it fell off my to-do list.

Now I’m resurrecting it, in a style that’s more like a Frequently Asked Questions format, with the idea of providing a basic resource on the subject.

I’m not promising a tightly structured narrative or comprehensive coverage: just some observations that may make criminology more understandable to students and anyone else who has any interest or curiosity in what criminology is about.

So what is criminology?

A short description of criminology would be this: it’s the study of crime.

But that answer hides more that it reveals.

Firstly, what exactly are we studying? Crime generally implies that the criminal law has been broken, but the kinds of events criminology looks at are very diverse.

Over the last couple of days, headlines on the BBC news website have  included stories about perverting the course of justice (i.e. lying under oath to the police, the courts, etc.); journalists carrying out illegal phone-hacking; sexual assault and rape; the harassment of young girls to bring them into prostitution; murder (several cases including the killing of small children) and arson.

That’s just in the UK. Look at the international news and you’ll find stories about war crimes, piracy on the high seas, the legal protection of biodiversity, corruption, and the trial of Anders Breivik (who admits killing 77 people in Norway with a bomb and by shooting, and whose crime appears to be intended as a terrorist attack and motivated by racial hatred – though his sanity is also being questioned).

Then there’s the more or less constant background of ‘ordinary’ or ‘everyday’ crimes that don’t attract much media attention – burglaries, robberies, thefts, assaults, fraud, vandalism, dangerous driving. On top of all that, there’s plenty of discussion about ‘antisocial behaviour’; the uncivil, aggressive and sometimes drunken or drug-influenced behaviour that often results in people feeling afraid to go out in their own neighbourhood.

This is clearly a wide range of ‘stuff’ committed by people in very different social circumstances, with different backgrounds, and for very different reasons. Pretty much the only thing these acts have in common with each other is that there are laws against them.

So the subject-matter of criminology depends on legal definitions?

Yes. And no.

Yes, because if something is clearly recognised as a criminal act it’s something that criminology should be, and is, interested in.

No, for several reasons. Laws change depending on place: something that’s legal in some countries is illegal in others. Famously, Singapore legislated some years ago against the use of chewing gum; more importantly, a number of countries in Africa are currently debating whether ‘homosexuals’ should be punished (with, apparently, not much clarity as to what ‘being homosexual’ means – here’s one BBC report as an example, and here’s another). And this is happening at the same time as many Western countries have established, or are considering, officially-recognised forms of same-sex civil partnership.

Laws also change over time: something that’s not a crime now might have been in the past, and something that’s not a crime now might become so in the future. The interpretation (and enforcement) of laws also changes over time.

In any case, there’s a long process that runs from a crime being reported to the police, to the police accepting that they should record the event as a crime, to a suspect being arrested, charges being made, legal arguments heard in court, and the offender being convicted.

So does a ‘crime’ mean simply that someone claims they’ve been victimised? Does it mean the point at which the police accept the event as a crime? And should our interest in offenders be limited only to those who have been convicted by a court?

Add to this the point that not all ‘crimes’ are reported to the police. Where they are, the police may not record them as crimes. Only a small proportion of crimes result in suspects being arrested, and by no means all of those arrested are convicted.

In addition there are crimes that are typically ‘discovered’ by the police. We’ve probably all seen TV programmes that follow the police on a shift and often they come across drunk people doing things like urinating in public. Equally, there are crimes that happen, in a sense, because the police stop someone; a common example is someone, again often drunk, pushing or hitting or swearing at a police officer and being arrested for it.

So there are plenty of criminal justice processes going on that criminology needs to take an interest in.

Who are the criminologists?

Increasingly, these days, criminologists are people who’ve studied criminology and criminal justice to degree level. But that wasn’t always the case, and still isn’t always the case. When I started out in criminology in the 1980s, the people I worked with had degrees in subjects such as sociology (my own background), social policy, anthropology, psychology, law, history, languages (e.g. French and German), and a dozen other subjects. Others I knew had backgrounds in philosophy, economics, medicine and psychiatry, religion, social work, and even physics, architecture or engineering. Some had come to criminology because they’d worked in the police or in prisons; some, including me, were recruited into criminology posts on the basis of our knowledge of research strategies, social theory and the like.

So criminology isn’t, properly speaking, an academic discipline. It’s a subject area that attracts people from a wide range of backgrounds, who use the skills they have from those other backgrounds to make sense of crime.

People who have a degree in criminology, of course, tend to get some kind of grounding in a lot of these more ‘mainstream’ academic subjects (though probably not languages, religion, physics or engineering!). All of them offer resources that can be used in trying to understand at least some of the issues around crime.

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Young people and crime: the YJB, the NAO and the future?

Quite a few things have been happening in the criminal justice area recently, some well-publicised and discussed and others ‘lost in the mix’ but still interesting. I’ll go through some other areas in later posts but this one focuses on youth crime.

According to a BBC report, Warning as key youth reoffending rate rises (10 Dec 2010):

Ministers want to introduce more and tougher community sentences as part of an overhaul of criminal justice. Youth crime is falling, but the NAO says it still cost the UK economy up to £11bn in 2009.

The National Audit Office report referred to was also published on 10 December 2010: The Youth Justice System in England and Wales: Reducing Offending by Young People.

The headline details are that:

The Board has been an effective leader of efforts to create and maintain a national youth justice system with a risk-based approach, and in recent years key youth crime indicators have been falling substantially.

The number of first-time young offenders had fallen over the last decade, and the proportion who reoffend had also fallen by around 25%. However, over the same 10-year time period, the proportion of young offenders given higher-tariff community sentences but who went on to reoffend increased by 6%.

The NAO was particularly concerned about the effectiveness of these higher-level community penalties for young offenders. It stated: ‘The most challenging offenders were proving difficult to reform’.

At the same time, it pointed to a lack of good research funded by the YJB in recent years and consequently a poor evidence base to establish ‘what works’ with these offenders. It has, the NAO pointed out, spent less than 0.5% of its overall budget on research for the last few years.

So what’s to be done? Well, despite the vote of confidence from the NAO over the YJB’s leadership role and approach, the Ministry of Justice has already decided to wind it up and bring its functions in-house. The proposal had been made when the number and role of NDBPs (Non-Departmental Public Bodies) was scrutinised shortly after the election, even before the government spending review. (The NAO, incidentally, is also slated for winding up.)

But that doesn’t address the question of how the rise in reoffending by the more ‘serious’ end of the young offender population should be dealt with. And since it appears there hasn’t been a while lot of research on this, we can only guess at the mix of issues involved. Leading questions might be:

1. Are Youth Rehabilitation Order requirements not the right kinds of interventions to address the problem of the more serious recidivists?

There are some 18 different kinds of conditions or requirements that can be included in a community sentence, ranging from supervised activities, curfews and electronic tags to mental health treatment, drug testing, intoxicating substance treatment to intensive supervision and surveillance. One might expect that a mix of such measures, which could amount to a highly interventive close supervision of behaviour, while working with underlying problems and attitudes, might prove effective. But this may not be the case and the research does not yet exist to enable us to make a confident assessment.

On this topic, the ‘Intensive Supervision and Surveillance’ option has been one of the conditions most closely studied. ISS exists in several different formats and can be used both as a community sentence and as part of a Detention and Training Order, i.e. within the community section of a sentence that is part-custody, part-community supervision. In very rough terms, it involves the offender in up to 25 hours per week of activities including education, restorative justice, offending behaviour programmes, interpersonal skills programmes and family support (the latter officially on the basis that the offender’s family needs support to help the offender, though presumably in some cases the family dynamics may have been an issue in the offending in the first place).

The limited research that exists is equivocal about the success of ISS. In an undated paper published by Civitas, ‘The Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme’, David G Green argues with the YJB’s conclusions (that ISS reduces offending behaviour by over 40%). Using their own data, which looked at offending rates for those on different types of ISS and comparison groups of those who weren’t, he points out that their conclusion is wrong; comparisons between the two groups showed no significant difference, and any apparent reduction in the rate of offending for both groups could be explained by statistical factors such as regression towards the mean.

This echoes a much earlier, but equally contested study of a somewhat less sophisticated probation experiment – Intensive Matched Probation and After Care Treatment (IMPACT) from 1976, which equally suggested that no significant reduction in offending was achieved by ‘intensive’ work compared with the ordinary forms of probation supervision. That study was by Folkard et al. (1976): IMPACT Intensive Matched Probation and After Care Treatment Vol II: The results of the experiment, Home Office Research Unit report 36.

The headline conclusion in 1976, as now, might best be phrased as a lightbulb joke:

Q: How many probation officers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Only one, but the lightbulb must really want to change!

2. Has the youth justice system done enough effective work with the ‘easy’ clients to reveal a core of harder cases?

This possibility was suggested, with some prescience, around 25 years ago by Stan Cohen in his Visions of Social Control. If what you do is effective with the ‘easy’ cases, working with them demonstrates a high success rate and good efficiency – factors that agency management and governments, who fund criminal justice, tend to like. However it leaves behind a pool of more recalcitrant clients with whom effective work is difficult, and whose repeated failures to reform impact on efficiency figures as well.

Since the YJB has followed a strategy of ‘resources follow risk’ it’s not clear that this would have been the actual scenario – the ‘harder’ cases presumably had more resources thrown at them, though perhaps not in ways that ultimately proved effective. Again, however, this would be a simple presumption that detailed research – had it taken place – might have indicated to be a gloss on a more complex scenario.

3. Or might it be that ‘externalities’ are the problem?

Some urban areas, in particular, seem to be places where crime – both offending and victimisation – is a ‘fact of life’ and young people get drawn into it whether or not they want to. Moreover, the line between being a victim and being an offender may be thinner than one might expect.

Briefly, one well-known, though now quite old, victim survey of under-16s in Edinburgh, Cautionary Tales: Young people, crime and policing in Edinburgh (Anderson et al., 1994) found that victimisation rates for theft, assault, threats/harassment, were several times higher than they were for adults. In addition 26% of girls and 9% of boys had been the victim of sexual ‘importuning’ – attempted or actual indecent assault, indecent exposure, being asked to go with someone for sex. Moreover, many young people did not report crimes to the police because their view of the police was largely negative, and based on previous experiences of harassment.

More recent studies in England and Wales, such as the Offending, Crime and Justice Surveys (OCJS) have come up with broadly comparable figures – see for example the results of the 2005 survey by Wilson, Sharp and Patterson (2006).

So a youth’s eye view would be that while many crimes are youth-on-youth, adults are equally unreliable, many are potential victimisers or predators, and the police – because young people are often ‘moved on’ or harassed by them – are simply not an agency to go to for help. This is the kind of world one might imagine in PC games, but for many youths it’s real life as well.

A further example of the disparity between youth and adult views came in a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Young people and territoriality in British cities (Kintrea et al. 2008).

The key point from this research is that young people often feel safe only within a very restricted area, perhaps no more than a couple of hundred metres across. Beyond lie a range of troubles and dangers from other youths, gangs, and the like; and adults often simply do not have any knowledge of this alternative universe.

The paper, incidentally, is also summarised and discussed in a Guardian article by Rowenna Davis (‘A thin line between love and hate’, The Guardian, Tuesday 14 October 2008). The article text begins: ‘Asked to draw maps of their neighbourhoods, kids revealed their worlds of turf wars, no-go zones and fear of violence.’

If they are of school-going age and must walk through ‘dangerous’ territory on a daily basis to get there, young people need to think in detail about how they will do this. Some may walk in another direction to catch a bus that will take them through the dangerous zones. Others, of course, may choose to carry knives. Immediately, we can begin to get some sense of how whether a young person is a victim or an offender might turn on the slimmest of chances: being stopped by the police, having a weapon that they use or that is knocked out their hands and used against them, not having a weapon when someone else does, and so forth. Adult rules and laws stop making sense in this kind of world.

And all this is before we even get to the more generic issues of lack of jobs and employment opportunities, other aspects of social exclusion and all the other ‘externalities’ that might make it seem sensible for a young offender not to cease offending.

Conclusion: the same old problem?

There’s another old lightbulb joke:

Q: How many social scientists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: None. They do not change light bulbs; they search for the root cause as to why the last one went out.

We are always at a point where we really need to know more about root causes, there’s never enough time and resources to do research as fully as it should be done, and politicians want answers and policies that will win them the backing of the media and the next election. The NAO comments have identified a failure of youth justice in dealing with its more challenging clientele, but it’s a failure with a long and distinguished history and no quick fixes. It may be a shame that the YJB will shortly disappear, because it did seem to act as a point of focus on youth crime issues, though others may emerge in future. It was a shame that more research wasn’t done, because we have only tantalising glimpses of information that might prove useful.

And these points do return us to an underlying issue. We do still need to know more – about how young people see the world these days, about how the range of externalities that the criminal justice system doesn’t control can impact young people’s behaviour, and about how it’s possible for the criminal justice and crime prevention to address the root causes of the problem.

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Drugs and crime – an unacknowledged success story?

The relationship between drug use and crime is highly complex, and drug use itself has often been seen as an extremely difficult area for intervention and one with limited possibilities for success. As Tonry (1990: 5) put it,

[M]ost drug treatment programs fail for most of their patients. Treatment administrators and evaluators, however, no longer think in simplistic, cured-or-not-cured terms, but instead view drug dependence as a chronic condition in which most clients will relapse; a successful long-term outcome will often involve a series of alternating treatments, failures, additional treatments, additional failures, and so on, culminating eventually for many in a pattern of life that is free from both drug dependence and criminality.

The range of factors involved here is clearly huge: there are different kinds of drugs with differing effects, different ‘user groups’, changing market structures, changing enforcement practices, different motivations and patterns of life that suggest variations in the relations between drug use and crime (crime to fund use, use as a consequence of involvement in criminal subculture, crimes committed as a form of ‘market maintenance’ and so forth…). One implication is that the difficulties of treatment, like the associated offending by many users, may be increased by factors embedded in the social world of the offender; treatment at an individual level may only be effective when the broader context is also addressed.

However, some interesting findings have come out of a recent UK study, A Long Term Study of the Outcomes of Drug Users Leaving Treatment, published to surprisingly little public and media reaction in September 2010 by the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse.

The NTASM, incidentally, is a National Health Service ‘Special Health Authority’ established in 2001. Its primary brief, as the website says, is to ‘get drug users into treatment, help them recover from dependency, and reintegrate them back into society’. Beyond this, it has a role in research, to build an evidence base for drugs policy.

The report is an evaluation of  long-term outcomes of drug treatment for 41,475 persons who left NHS-related drug treatment (whether or not treatment was completed) in England from April 2005 to March 2006.  The follow-up was done by searches of three datasets, The NHS National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS), the Drug Interventions Management Information System (DIMIS) which records data on drug tests provided by police forces, and Drug Test Recorder (DTR), also a police database. The authors note that if an individual was either arrested or went back into treatment, one or several of these should record the fact.

I’m not going to offer a detailed methodological discussion here, and the report does outline some points at which information might escape these databases or result in duplication if one individual is, for example, registered under different names or if other information such as date of birth is wrongly recorded in one of them. We can be fairly sure, in a study of over 40,000 individuals, that (a) some such issues will arise and (b) given the size of the dataset, they shouldn’t affect outcomes significantly.

That said, the key findings were that:

  • Almost half of all clients discharged from treatment during 2005-06 showed evidence of sustained recovery. Around 46% did not come back into treatment and were not found to be involved in drug related offending in the follow-up period.
  • Of the remainder, about half came back directly into treatment, mostly within a year, and one-third went back into treatment via the criminal justice system.
  • Of those who left treatment but subsequently re-offended and were using drugs, 65% went back into treatment.

On the one hand we probably shouldn’t read too much into this. Given current levels of detection for offending, an unknown but potentially large segment of the study group will have continued in both drug use and crime, not gone back into treatment directly and not been detected as offenders even if they have continued to commit crimes. On this point we may need to ask more detailed questions, tracking people’s lives more closely and looking at the type and frequency of offending and drug use, and at the impact of changing lifestyle and other factors (ageing, relationships and so forth) that could influence these things.

Yet the fact remains that in terms of the cycle Tonry outlined, we do appear to be seeing evidence that sustained and repeated efforts at drug treatment are likely to have had some ‘success’ over time. Because of the uncertainties of criminal justice and detection, the figures offered are ‘best case’ scenarios – 46% removed from offending and drug use, about a quarter being treated again without having offended, and the majority of the remainder being directed back into treatment as a result of their offences. Reality is undoubtedly less rosy and quantifying this is clearly difficult and the headline figures from police and NHS datasets may not be the best approach to doing this. And more detailed work would be useful in terms of understanding the detail of what kinds of treatment were more successful, with what kinds of users and which kinds of drugs, and so forth (this is briefly covered in the report if raising more questions than it answers).

But in social policy terms, many policies are deemed ‘successful’ with much lower levels of achievement than even a critical and pessimistic view of these figures would give. While more work and more research needs to be done – doesn’t it always? – it’s worth noting that something, for once, seems to be a cause for guarded optimism.


National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (2010) A Long Term Study of the Outcomes of Drug Users Leaving Treatment. Norwich: The Stationery Office.

Tonry, M. (1990) ‘Research on Drugs and Crime’, in M. Tonry and J.Q. Wilson (eds) Drugs and Crime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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The GMP tweets…

In an unusual and imaginative exercise, the Greater Manchester Police have posted brief details of every incident dealt with between 0500 on 14 October 2010 and 0500 15 October 2010 on Twitter.

As the Chief Constable put it on the Twitter feed @gmp24_3, the intention was to ‘raise awareness of the wide range of incidents that police officers have to deal with every day – a lot of what we do isn’t crime but we are always there as the agency of the last resort – currently policing only gets measured by the crimes recorded and detected and it doesn’t fully reflect what we do.’

The tweets were spread across four Twitter accounts, @gmp24_1, @gmp24_2, @gmp24_3 and @gmp24_4. Initial information stated only the first three accounts would be used but it appeared a fourth was necessary.

The tweets are available directly from Twitter at the following URLs (though it’s not clear how long they will remain available): and

All the tweets are also posted on the GMP website.

In addition images taken by the police from selected incidents are available on the GMP’s Flickr account.

On a technical note, it appears that the tweeted information does not relate purely to 999 calls. Some tweets refer to ‘information about wanted offender received from another force’, etc., so it seems likely that this was a log of all calls to their communications centre.

The calls give a view of police work that is reminiscent of many sociological studies of policing, notably Bittner’s (1970) observation that ‘the role of the police is to address all sorts of human problems when and insofar as their solutions do or may possibly require the use of force at the point of their occurrence,’ or Punch’s (1979) comment that the police are a ‘secret social service’ in as much as they respond to a wide range of situations that people (a) find problematic and (b) do not know who else to call, perhaps because a more appropriate agency does not maintain a 24-hour service. Why else would the police be responding to calls about escaped cows in a Manchester suburb?

A quick scrutiny of the tweets indicates the very high proportion of hoax/malicious calls to the 999 emergency number. However there were also many calls relating to antisocial behaviour, violence, thefts, damage to vehicles, harassment, lost/missing children etc.

A large number of calls, though, related to the ‘secret social service’ side of police work – e.g. asking for advice on non-police matters (whether these were 999 calls, which would have been an inappropriate use of the emergency number, is not clear), reporting confused or apparently mentally ill persons on the street, or calls concerned about the welfare of children.

In some cases it’s not possible to determine from the tweets exactly what was at stake. Calls indicating the caller was ‘concerned for the welfare of a child’ could indicate anything from a toddler playing on the street without apparent supervision, to concern about violence or sexual abuse. And one caller, for example, was reporting a man walking in a known dog-walking area without a dog – one can only guess at what if anything the man was doing, beyond not having a dog, that led to a caller being suspicious of him.

Finally, some calls were threats made to the police, mistaken calls (people believing a crime was in progress when it was not), and there were several humorous incidents (e.g. a person accidentally leaving cannabis by the cash till when paying for an item in a shop).

It is important to bear in mind that much police work takes place independently of these calls from the public – what the tweets don’t address would include matters such as ongoing investigations, issues involving informants, matters such as planning for public order (football matches, demonstrations and so forth), and of course incidents encountered by the police in the course of patrols – much city-centre policing of, say, drunks leaving pubs and clubs would fall into this category.

Nonetheless the tweets do demonstrate that the ‘secret social service’ aspect of policing – peacekeeping, if you like, rather than law enforcement – still forms a large proportion of routine police work, and as the Chief Constable points out, it’s not captured in crime statistics. The extent to which this a routine part of police work and should be recognised as such (and taken into account in police funding) is likely to be on the agenda in the future, as government spending reviews proceed and financial cuts become the order of the day.

It would, though, be shortsighted for policy-makers to ignore the apparent demand for this aspect of police work, at the possibility that it will actually increase at a time when other agencies – social services, housing and so forth – are also likely to see big budget cuts and reductions in their levels of service.

NB be aware that there are now spoof twitter feeds such as @gmp24_0 – these are quite amusing, but ensure you’re looking at real information!


Bittner, E. (1970) The Function of the Police in Modern Society (1970). Chevy Chase, Maryland: National Institute of Mental Health.

Punch, M. (1979) ‘The Secret Social Service’, in Holdaway, S. (ed) The British Police. London: Edward Arnold.

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