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Is faith in the criminal justice system waning?

Penelope Gibbs
01 Jan 2020

The number of prosecutions by the police has fallen to an all time low. This is causing headaches for the government and the police. Meanwhile law and order is an increasingly important issue for the electorate.

But there is an interesting dichotomy between people’s views on justice in general and how they behave when crime affects them personally. In general people feel that sentencing is too lenient.

But in the case of much recorded and unrecorded crime those involved are not strangers – all domestic abuse, most rape and many common assaults (fights) involve friends, family, lovers and acquaintances. And though more of these crimes are being reported, the police are finding it harder to move from report to prosecution. To get convictions, the police rely on alleged victims being willing to testify. Occasionally other witnesses saw what happened, or the run up to an offence, but very often the crime involves two people in private. In the case of domestic abuse, many alleged victims refuse to engage once the police arrive at the scene. Sometimes a neighbour may have reported without telling those involved. Other times the alleged victim may have called the police themselves. No-one knows why quite so many alleged victims don’t want to press charges. They may fear the consequences either for their own safety, for their relationship or for the alleged perpetrator. The formal criminal justice system does not serve their needs.

Rape is similar. Many of those who report rape either never wanted to pursue it through the courts or decide after reporting that they do not want to go through with it. In the year ending March 2019 only 8% of rape allegations made to the police went anywhere near the Crown Prosecution Service. Some are discontinued by the police at an early stage (usually they judge the evidence is not sufficiently strong), but in many cases it is the alleged victim who withdraws from the process. It’s not clear why. Maybe they are frightened off by stories of digital strip searches and aggressive cross-examination. Or maybe they just decide that the trial process will exacerbate the trauma they feel. Or they may be unwilling to punish someone they know so severely. It is possible to be very angry with someone for forcing sex, but still not want to ruin their life.

So, ironically, while some victims call for harsher punishments (eg for causing death by dangerous driving), other victims may recoil from subjecting their alleged rapist/abuser to the kind of harsh punishment our system metes out.

Delays in the system may also be leading to victims’ withdrawal of co-operation. Soon after a crime is committed, a victim is likely to be at their peak of anger and hurt. But time sometimes heals, and many people’s anger dissipates. As the anger dissipates, so also will the desire to pursue vengeance and to co-operate with a formal prosecution process. Many crimes are taking months, if not years, to investigate. The longer it takes, the more likely a victim may decide that they do not want to give evidence.

So we have a perfect storm leading to fewer prosecutions – police under resource pressure are taking longer to investigate, and victims who know their perpetrator/attacker don’t want to push either party through the lengthy, punitive criminal justice system. A recent tweet suggested that concern about the low level of prosecutions may have led to the return of “sanction detections” (police targets for arrests). If true, this is risky move. Under New Labour targets for arrests led the police to arrest “low hanging fruit” – the easiest people to catch often committing minor offences. If we want to understand why prosecutions have dropped, we need to do a proper, considered review.

But we also need to think hard about what victims of crime really want in terms of justice, and whether the narrative we most often hear (that victims want more prosecution and tougher sentences) fits with their behaviour and with other evidence. The Crime Survey of England and Wales measures confidence in the justice system every year. The proportion of the population who believes that the criminal justice system takes into account the views of victims and witnesses, and that it gives victims and witnesses the support they need, has increased significantly in the last ten years. More people think the police are effective at catching criminals than ten years ago. The only score to have moved down is of the proportion of the population who thinks the criminal justice system is too soft on crime.

So the public has become more satisfied with the way victims of crime are treated in the same period that prosecutions have gone down. Surely this should prompt pause for thought, and to consider very carefully whether we really want to bring back crude numerical targets for arrests?