Reoffending Rates are Misleading

The reoffending rates probably aren’t going down at all!

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab recently tweeted that reoffending rates had fallen two percentage points compared to the same period in the previous year to 23.1% and down since above 30% in 2009-10.

He even went as far to suggest that this shows how investment in policies such as drug rehabilitation and employment for offenders programmes are working.

However, these claims are misleading because if you dig a little deeper into the reoffending statistics you find it isn’t necessarily the case that ex offenders aren’t reoffending, it could just be that they aren’t getting prosecuted and thus not reappearing on the statistics.

This was the main point that Danny Shaw, previous Home Affairs correspondent for the BBC, made on a recent Radio 4 Analysis show which explored this issue (1).

What is the reoffending rate?

The reoffending rate is the proportion of people who have been released from prison or who have been given community sentence or a fine who within 12 months of that event commit another offence for which they are convicted or given a caution.

So it’s really more accurate to call it the reconviction or recautioning rate rather than the reoffending rate because some people may offend again but just not get caught and processed again.

So the decline in the reoffending rate above could be because the police and courts are getting less effective at getting convictions and giving cautions.

And we have to ask this because the government hasn’t presented any cause and effect evidence which shows that offending rates are going down because of any of their social policies.

A second set of data from the Home Office which shows the outcomes of offences (what happens to a crime after it is reported and recorded by the police in England and Wales) show that charge rates have plummeted, down by 10% from 2014-15 to the 12 months ending September 2022 to 5.5%, and the caution rate has gone from 4.6% to 1%.

Just to emphasis this: the trend in the charge rate for crimes is:

  • 2014/15: 15.5% of crimes were formally charged, or 1/7 crimes resulted in a charge.
  • 2022: 5.5% of crimes were formally charged. Or 1/20 crimes resulted in a charge.

That is a drastic change in just seven years suggesting there is something going very wrong with the Criminal Justice System: the numbers of known offences which are dealt with by the prosecution services has fallen by two thirds in seven years. Surely this must be having an impact on the numbers of ex offenders

Why are the charging and cautioning rates falling?

According to Shaw a combination of two factors explain this:

  1. There has been a changing in the mix of offences, with an increase in the number of sexual offences which tend to be more complex and more difficult to process so less likely to result in a charge or caution.
  2. Police officer numbers fell from almost 144 000 in 2010 to 123 000 in to 2019, a drop of around 21 000

This combination of increasingly complex offences and fewer police officers means that fewer crimes are getting processed and such low rates of charging and cautioning suggest that criminals have got a license to get away with crime.

Statistical analysis paints quite a different picture to Dominic Raab’s spin!

Signposting and sources

This material should be a useful update for anyone studying the Crime and Deviance topic as part of their A-level sociology course, or criminology more generally!

(1) More or Less: Behind the Stats, February 2023