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There are six major questions to address before deciding whether and how to focus on repeat offending as a response to your problem.
Specific local problems may result from the behavior of many different people rather than a small number of repeat offenders. Are you confident your problem results substantially from prolific offenders?
A strategy that focuses on repeat offending will be ineffective if the problem being addressed is largely the result of isolated criminal acts by different individuals. Therefore, it is important that you try to estimate the relative contribution of occasional and persistent offenders, even if the data available are imperfect. One method is to insert the best numbers available into a table such as the one below (Table 2), to roughly estimate the contribution of repeat offenders to your problem. Your analysis will depend on data availability, and you will need to decide whether to draw on arrests, charges, convictions, or intelligence, and what classes of offense to include in relation to the problem at hand and over what period of time. In all cases you will need to look at the data critically, with due account of their limitations: intelligence can be flawed; many offenses do not lead to arrests, charges, or
convictions; and many offenses are not reported or recorded by the police.
Number of offenses an offender commits
Number of offenders
Number of offenses
Predicting who will offend repeatedly is challenging. Are you confident you know who the current offenders are and who are most likely to continue engaging in the problem behavior?
You can draw on offenders’ past records, but you risk focusing on those who are toward the end of their offending careers. You can also draw on intelligence about who is currently involved in the offending behavior. Other attributes of an active prolific offender include habitual use of expensive (and especially multiple) drugs, a lifestyle more lavish than any legitimate employment would provide, sustained unemployment, commission of multiple types of offenses, selection of easy crime targets, solitary offending, and criminal activity in multiple jurisdictions, as well as intelligence on them gleaned from the street (from informants, local patrol officers, or community members), information from arrestees, and interviews by probation officers.44
Early involvement in crime is a well-established predictor of repeat offending. To identify young people who may be at risk of becoming repeat offenders and target efforts to head off their later criminality, one problem-oriented policing project developed a system for recording juveniles’ contacts with police for alleged misbehavior. This prevented selecting people for close attention based on suspicions of what they might do. Interventions were low key to start, beginning with letters to parents or guardians about why the young person’s behavior caught police attention and progressing to school involvement and case conferences drawing in relevant agencies. These steps aimed initially to activate informal social control. Formal action would follow if an individual persisted in his antisocial behavior. If an
individual did not come to police attention again within six months of his initial encounter, his name would be removed. The need to ratchet up interventions was rare.45
As emphasized earlier in this guide, repeat offending can occur among different groups and for different reasons. Have you identified any specific attributes of the repeat offender populations producing your particular problem?
Repeat offending may, for example, be associated with mental disturbance, drug or alcohol dependency, or gang membership. Understanding the reasons for repeat offending in relation to a specific problem is important in determining what might be done about it. For example, the following repeat offenses all have different attributes that suggest different possible interventions: gang-feud crime, domestic violence, drug-dependence-driven crime, fraud offenses, mentally disturbed crime, racist harassment and bullying, prostitution in a given neighborhood, receipt of stolen property, drug dealing, and neighbor boundary disputes. More detailed analysis of the specific circumstances producing the problem may suggest possible responses. In one case relating to vehicle crime in parking lots, the initial effort with some apparent success was to identify and target the most active repeat offenders. The problem soon re-emerged. However, at this point, a different approach was
taken: working with Planning Codes and Compliance Departments to devise parking lot regulations that met minimum security standards to reduce those opportunities for thieves that lead to repeat offenses.46 The most sustainable approach did not appear to lie in focusing exclusively on the currently active crop of repeat offenders but rather the situation in which successive individuals repeatedly offend.
It can be difficult to change the behavior of those heavily involved in repeat offending. Are effective means available to alter the actions of the repeat offenders you want to target?
A large volume of research indicates that changing the disposition to offend is difficult and time-consuming. This is not to say that it is impossible. In an early problem-oriented policing project related to offensive behavior by mentally disturbed people in Madison, Wisconsin, analysis found that, notwithstanding news reports referring to as many as 1,000 individuals, most of the actions were attributable to only 20 who were failing to take their prescribed medication. Focused attention on them by the local mental health service and provision for the identification and referral of new patients evidently substantially reduced the problem.47
Just-desserts advocates have questioned whether it is ethical to use predictions of what people might do rather than what they have already done as a basis for focusing on them and giving them special treatment within the criminal justice system.48 Are you confident you are justified in targeting and attempting to supplement the punishment of those you think might offend in the future, even though they might not do so?
There is an issue of proportionality here. Are there strong grounds for believing that a particular offender or group of offenders causing local problems will continue to offend unless you take measures to prevent them from doing so? In some cases it may be reasonable to conclude that it does and to inform those who are deemed liable to offend repeatedly that if they continue to do so the consequences will be more-than-usual police attention and more-than-usual efforts to secure speedy conviction and long sentences. This principle was used in the Boston Gun Project.
If the repeat offenders draw attention to themselves through processes of self-selection then the criminal justice response springs from their behavior.49 This is preferable to what may seem to be discriminatory harassment based on some estimate of the probability that members of any group are likely to reoffend repeatedly. Many repeat offenders tend to behave antisocially in diverse ways. Even if their more serious criminality is difficult to detect because of their capacity to cover their tracks or to intimidate potential witnesses, they may be detected through other criminal or otherwise deviant behavior where they are more careless. Al Capone is the classic example: convicted of tax-related offenses rather than mob-related crime. In Durham, U.K., a strong focus on persistent organized-crime families is reducing the problems they cause by openly and explicitly attending to members’
every rule-infraction as an effort to deter them from their criminal lifestyle. In letters to family members, the police chief has made clear his strategy and commended his officers for systematically focusing on them, indicating that this attention will come to an end only when they abandon their criminal lifestyles.
Focusing on those believed to be repeat offenders is quite widespread in policing. What has been done already in relation to your problem and with what success in reducing or removing the problem? Were there any unwanted side effects?
As it is in planning any other problem-oriented policing initiative, it is important to review current activities. What has already been done locally to identify and address problems caused by repeat offenders and with what evidence of success or failure? Given that the problem persists and attention to repeat offending is being considered, it is helpful to know whether repeat offending has so far been overlooked, or, if it has already been addressed, in what ways are current methods of dealing with it inadequate, insufficient, or in need of revision.
Finally, to check whether your work to target repeat offending is producing its expected results, you should try to assess its outcomes honestly and rigorously. Because efforts to reduce reoffending often involve new practices and coalitions with those in other organizations, it is important to track start-up problems in implementing the planned measures. To assess outcomes you should be clear in advance about where, when, and among whom specific changes in behavior are expected, and how this will most easily be evidenced so the required data can be collected. You also need to watch out for unintended outcomes such as displacement and diffusion of benefits.