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Close to home: the case for localising criminal justice

Penelope Gibbs
05 Jul 2023
It's the whole Westminster system. No similar country puts so much decision-making in the hands of so few people. It's no wonder the problems of communities up and down the country don`t get the attention they deserve.
Keir Starmer

England and Wales has one of the most centralised criminal justice systems in the world. Only the police, some victim’s services and youth justice are locally controlled. Everything else is run from Whitehall with the Welsh Assembly getting a few crumbs of responsibility. In the USA in contrast most justice is done locally. Every state has its own criminal justice system and its own criminal law. Apart from federal prisons and courts (which deal with the most serious crimes), justice services are all managed by the state or, even more locally, by the county. The American criminal justice system is seldom held up as a good example of anything, but their localisation has helped activists. Community members advocating for progressive change have lobbied for the election of progressive prosecutors and judges, and for reform of their local police forces. And campaigners have been successful in influencing their local state politicians to reform criminal law and criminal records.

We’re not advocating for electing prosecutors and judges, but we have developed proposals for the delegation of criminal justice budgets and power to local government in England and Wales. Currently criminal justice services struggle to work together – because their regional boundaries are different, and because they are managed by different departments or agencies. Civil servants in Whitehall develop policy and guidance which is imposed on local areas, for which it may not be suitable. Whitehall creates grant schemes for the projects it has prioritised and asks local PCCs, police forces and councils to spend considerable resources to bid for funds they would often rather spend on something else. The latest round of the Safer Streets Fund saw over 80 PCCs, councils and police forces applying to the Home Office for projects as minor as installing extra CCTV and street lighting.

Transform Justice’s envisions a system where probation, magistrates’ courts administration and CPS administration is delegated to PCC (police and crime commissioner) level. Budgets for these services would be delegated to local level with no funding pots remaining with Whitehall civil servants. What difference would this actually make? Unlike in the USA, local areas wouldn’t be able to change primary legislation.

But we think it could make a radical difference to the efficiency with which money is used and to the funding available for prevention and activities to reduce reoffending. One example is in resolving crime without going to court. Someone who commits a lower level crime can be charged or diverted from prosecution. Out of court resolutions are more effective in reducing reoffending and more cost effective since there is no expensive court hearing. Victims and those who commit crime can move on more quickly if they don’t have to wait for a court date. But there is currently no financial incentive for the police to resolve more crime without going to court. If the police give someone who commits a crime a community resolution, conditional caution or deferred prosecution, they have to pay for any programmes, staff or administration involved. Whereas if they charge the person, the costs are mainly borne by the courts service and probation. If courts administration, probation and police budgets were pooled and localised, the local police and crime commissioner could attach funding to the agency who dealt with the crime, thus incentivising the resolution of crime out of court.

Localisation of services would also help reduce homelessness amongst those leaving prison and reduce remand. If you leave prison with a roof over your head you are more likely to reoffend because homelessness is a barrier to getting benefits, jobs and healthcare. But there is scant financial or other incentive for local authorities to provide those at risk of remand or prison leavers with accommodation. It is seen as a problem for prisons or probation. But if PCCs and/or local councils were financially rewarded to reduce remand, recall and reoffending, they would have the incentive and the funds to help provide accommodation for those in trouble with the law. People leaving prison would be a community challenge not someone else’s problem.

But could localisation lead to post code justice – to someone in one area being prosecuted while in another area they would be dealt with out of court, or to someone being sent to prison on remand in one area but not in another?  These inconsistencies already occur with police forces having different practices and courts having different practices. There is no reason why localised justice should increase differences, and a new monitoring system could lead to greater transparency. If criminal justice services were localised, primary legislation would still be made in parliament and judges would still be independent to make decisions according to the evidence and sentencing guidelines.

It’s always hard for those who have power to let go of it. Our proposals for localising the criminal justice system are radical but we believe the arguments in favour are strong. Do let us know what you think. All challenge is welcome.

Whitehall’s bidding and begging bowl culture is broken and the sooner we can decentralise and move to proper fiscal devolution the better
Andy Street, West Midlands Mayor
Read the paper here
Read the paper here Download