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How to mend our criminal justice system – a twelve point plan

Penelope Gibbs
16 Dec 2019

We are here with a new Conservative government which promised to be tough on crime and attributes some it’s electoral success to this.  We all want to reduce crime and its victims. During the election campaign the importance of mending our broken system was highlighted by the Fishmongers hall tragedy and by evidence of Joseph McCann’s catastrophic rape “spree” (and the failure of rehabilitation which precipitated it).

So what should the new government do to fix our CJS? They have pledged to delay the release of prisoners charged with the most serious offences and to increase police numbers. If this is a given, what might they do to reduce crime?

  1. One starting point might be to point out that crime has fallen dramatically since 1995 (under Labour, the Coalition and Conservatives) and has not risen even recently. Some types of crime have gone up, as has police recorded crime (which does not accurately reflect real crime), but overall there is no rise. So we should reassure a worried public at the same time as focusing on those crimes which are increasing.
  2. The criminal justice system and the police have limited ability to reduce crime – the toughness of criminal sanctions does not deter anyone thinking of committing a crime, nor have a significant effect on re-offending. This administration might look at the wider drivers to crime, and ensure that other social and public services do everything possible to reduce crime. Until those who come out of prison can access benefits, jobs and housing, they are liable to re-offend.
  3. Look at ways of driving change through the way money is distributed. If funds for criminal justice were localised, including prison and court budgets, local agencies would be incentivised to reduce offending. Justice reinvestment should lead to more efficient and effective use of the small budget available to the Ministry of Justice.
  4. Work out why prosecutions are falling. Much has been written about how the sharp drop in police numbers in England in recent years led to fewer prosecutions, but in Wales there was a similar fall in prosecutions, but only a small reduction in police numbers. So something else is going on. Are police being diverted from investigating crime by a focus on paperwork, and supporting people with mental health problems? Are the police becoming quasi social workers?
  5. Domestic abuse is an example of a wicked problem where more police officers are not the answer. Criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse. And only a minority of domestic abuse incidents lead to very serious offences. Meanwhile police officers are spending huge amounts of time processing the majority through the system. If we want to reduce domestic abuse we need to look outside the criminal justice system for solutions. And focus police resources on high harm.
  6. Reduce the use of short prison sentences – by stealth. This policy was championed by David Gauke as Lord Chancellor, but since abandoned. But we don’t need legislative change to reduce the use of short sentences, which everyone agrees are ineffective. We need to impress on the judiciary why short prison sentences are worse than community sentences, even if the latter are still delivered by ramshackle CRCs. And get probation to present convincing alternatives to a short prison sentences in every case.
  7. Reform the Sentencing Council. The body that was created to promote consistency in sentencing has achieved that, but at the expense of sentence inflation. Ramping up prison sentences across the board does not cut crime since no extra rehabilitation work is done in the extra prison time. We need a new approach to sentencing which considers the effectiveness of sentences, not just the length. The current Sentencing Council is not set up to do this.
  8. Promote out of court disposals and approaches. Some people need to be prosecuted but some of the most effective responses to crime happen when police officers use their discretion to deal with a crime “on the street”. Cautions, community resolutions and deferred prosecution all involve the person who commits a crime accepting a sanction and, in most cases, making amends. It is speedy, cost-effective justice. We need to increase diversion from the CJS for some people, and decriminalise a swathe of offences like non-payment of the TV licence.
  9. Pause the reforms of Transforming Rehabilitation. There is little evidence that offender behaviour programmes make a lot of difference to re-offending (when their impact is tracked). But the new iteration of Transforming Rehabilitation relies on such programmes, and involves outsourcing them to private and voluntary sector companies. The programmes the government is outsourcing have not been evaluated, so we don’t know whether they work. So the new reforms risk wasting more money.
  10. Reform our criminal records disclosure regime. It’s the biggest barrier to rehabilitation. Our system makes people disclose old and quite minor offences for longer than most other Western democracies. This makes it difficult for people who’ve been in trouble with the law to stay on the straight and narrow. And again, there is no evidence that the current disclosure regime is proportionate or effective in protecting employers and vulnerable people. Cultures prevent abuse, not processes.
  11. I’m not sure that listening to victims has a direct effect on reducing crime but we need to understand their needs better. A common view is that victims want prosecution, conviction and tough punishment, but some trends belie this. Research shows that victims of domestic abuse, sexual offences and common assault are withdrawing from the formal justice system in their droves. It is not clear why they withdraw, or refuse to engage in the first place. It’s probably partly because the system is slow and unsupportive, but maybe also because they don’t want to achieve justice or closure that through the criminal justice system. And who is to say they are wrong?
  12. Unite the departments which deal with criminal justice. Prisons, probation and courts are within the Ministry of Justice and policing and crime prevention in the Home Office. The two departments have very different cultures and don’t always align on policy. Policing and its outcomes should be dealt with in the same department.