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Police and crime commissioners must be champions of early intervention

PCCs can bring a strategic and long-term view to reducing crime.

The first-ever police and crime commissioner elections will take place in 41 police authority areas in England and Wales today. Photograph: Getty Images.

"One thousand extra police officers would be great, but one thousand extra health visitors would be clever."

So says former head of homicide in Glasgow, John Carnochan. One of a new smarter breed of top cops. He knows that working with partners to stop crime before it happens is the future for policing. The new police and crime commissioners (PCCs) can be the midwife of this cultural change in policing from late intervention to early intervention.

The police will always have the tasks of reacting to crime and providing a presence in local communities to dampen the fear of crime. But to achieve the sustained prevention and reduction of crime requires a strategy which unites the police with all the agencies, whether public or private or third sector, which tackle the behaviours and lifestyles which generate anti-social behaviour and crime.

The best time to do this is in the first three years of life. This has been common sense wisdom for centuries, and it has been confirmed by a growing body of robust evidence. If a child acquires in the first three years of life a bedrock of basic social and emotional skills he or she has a better chance of making a success in the rest of life, of achieving at school and further education, and in work, in developing good physical and mental health, in finding or creating a stable household and making good lifestyle choices and, above all, in forming relationships and becoming a parent or carer for the next generation. For all of these reasons, a good start in the first three years of life is the best possible method of preventing future criminal behaviour. With the right evidence-based early intervention programmes, local communities can give all local babies and infants the best chance of getting that good start.

That was the central message of two reports I wrote for the government on early intervention. That is why I wrote to all police and crime commissioner candidates challenging them to adopt early intervention policies as their "unique selling point" in their relationship with the police. Instead of treading on operational toes, PCCs can bring a strategic and long-term view to reducing crime which police officers, victims and taxpayers will welcome.

PCCs will be perfectly positioned to build the strong partnerships with health, education and third sector and explore the role of evidenced based programmes, social finance and payment-by-results in reducing crime. We pioneered this approach with the police and other partners in developing Nottingham as the first "Early Intervention City". Here it was enlightened, forward-planning senior police officers who became the driving force of the new partnership.

The PCCs should follow in the footsteps of Sir Robert Peel who wisely put preventing crime first even ahead of catching offenders.  With the right early intervention policies, we can forestall many of the mental and social problems which are factors in generating anti-social behaviour and crime later in life.  Early intervention has the ability to break the cycle of dysfunction which can turn families into repeat offenders.  It can do this much more cheaply and reliably than intervening later, and generate lasting savings for local budgets and lasting gains in the quality of life for local neighbourhoods.

PCCs should use early intervention to attack the causes of crime at the source and in so doing unlocks with tiny investments a huge new stream of money. We are already seeing payback from investment in social and emotional programmes. Those involving young offenders are massively reducing costly reoffending. These programmes are also the pioneers of social finance and innovative Bond issues in Peterborough and Doncaster prisons. I was recently in New York, where the Deputy Mayor make an innovative agreement  with Goldman Sachs and a Social and Emotional Development provider. This has reduced recidivism in 16-18 year olds, generated a profit for Goldmans and may ultimately result in a wing or prison closure. PCCs oversight of policing budgets should include such money saving ideas as standard.

Earlier intervention also has proven results. For example in attaching health visitors to teenage mothers, as we do in Nottingham,  we draw on a 30-year evidence base of reduced crime, better job prospects and educational achievement.

If PCCs use their position creatively to become champions of early intervention, to argue for effective crime reduction programmes that make us safer and return money to the taxpayer, then all those voting today will be voting for a better tomorrow.