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June 12, 2015

Of those in magistrates’ court cells, how many really need to be there?

I visited Thames Magistrates Court the other Friday.  For one of the busiest magistrates’ courts, it seemed quite quiet, but there were many in the cells in the basement of the court.  Some had come there from prison, but most were brought in from local police stations, where they had spent the night.  As I watched some cases I began to wonder why the people in the dock were in the dock.  Surely the dock and the court cells should be reserved for those who are in prison already, and for whom there is a genuine risk they could abscond.  But most of the people I saw had been arrested “on warrant” the day before, spent the night in the police cells and and been brought to court and put in the court cells, pending their appearance.  In the court they were placed in the closed dock with three security guards. No-one batted an eyelid, but I really wondered whether this process and expense was necessary?  Most of the people in the closed dock had been picked up from their home – one had been in the courthouse earlier in the week and had walked out before his case was called (maybe he lost patience?), another had breached her community order.  Everyone knew where to find them and they were accused of non-violent crimes.  What was the point of processing them through the policy custody suite, getting court transportation and then processing the case through the court cells system?  The defendants I saw would have turned up in court under their own steam if pressure had been put on them to do so.  They were not dangerous criminals and did not need to be put under lock and key to get them to court.  If the government wants to save police and court time, I suggest arrest warrants for non-violent offenders are abolished and a new process to get people to court is instituted – a text to their mobile phone and possibly a taxi.  This would save the system millions.