Monday, September 25, 2006

Criminal prediction

A trenchant Guardian letter today about Government pre-crime plans:

While we would wish to support the intentions of Tony Blair and HilaryArmstrong's Social Exclusion Action Plan (Report, September 13), we share major concerns about the message which some parents may take from their announcement. The proposal to provide early support for vulnerable families through health visitors is welcome, but the suggestion that they predict which parents are at risk of bringing up children who will be offenders is dangerous.

Trying to coerce parents of children thought to be at risk of future offending into accepting early intervention is unlikely to be effective. Tests to predict behaviour that is relatively uncommon cannot claim more than 25% accuracy and have major ethical problems. Simplistic predictive testing will not provide the answer to complex human problems. Initiatives based on selective and misleading evidence risk further alienating some of our most vulnerable groups and wasting scarce resources.

The vast majority of parents know when help is needed, but too often cannot get access to it.

How then can Britain take the tough decisions needed to improve the situation, while avoiding a culture of blame and stigma?

The most successful services are those which work in partnership with families, across agencies, recognising the complexity of people's lives, offering ready access to support that does not stigmatise, but builds on strengths, aspirations and a sense of responsibility. Some such initiatives have been highlighted in the present plan to tackle social exclusion, but some have been misrepresented by a narrow, punitive tone.

Poverty, housing and educational disadvantage are still the factors most closely associated with harm to children, with poor physical and mental health and with a whole range of family problems. Our society has not yet come close to ensuring that all children have the environment they need to achieve their potential. This needs to be a focus of political action.

We need to be much more generous as a society in praising all those parents who do well for their children against the odds. We need to ensure that policies are based on evidence of what can improve social justice and cohesion, strengthen families and communities, and avoid alienation and harm.

Professor Norma Baldwin University of Dundee, Professor Joan Orme University of Glasgow, Professor Michael Preston Shoot University of Bedfordshireand 43 others

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