A cycle of decline
In a week where much of the media spotlight is on one former Prime Minister returning to Government; today’s post looks at the work of another ex-premier in the form of a new plan to Reform the Justice System from Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change. The paper describes our justice system as “locked in a cycle of decline”, noting that despite charge rates that having fallen to record lows, the court system is struggling to cope and prisons are effectively at operational capacity. The paper emphasises that the system is independent and often has competing aims with ministers and civil servants stuck in a situation where they know that addressing a problem in one part of the system will put additional stress elsewhere. It gives two examples:
- Decisions to increase police-officer numbers may put pressure on the courts, which are already struggling with record backlogs.
- Reducing the availability of mental-health treatment within prisons may impact the ability of the probation service to rehabilitate offenders once they are released from custody.
The report says that the justice system needs to become capable of “intelligent segmentation”; saying that not every offender is the same, but the system continues to treat them as if they were. The report calls for swift and certain justice which it says will be more likely to keep victims engaged and deter repeat offending, preventing the need for harsher punishments later on.
The report highlights five key problems
- A small minority of offenders responsible for a large proportion of total crime
- Too few offenders being charged – and those that are charged facing lengthy delays
- Victims losing confidence, meaning they withdraw from the process, allowing offenders to evade justice
- Declining trial effectiveness and lengthy court backlogs leaving suspects and victims in limbo
- An offender-management system that neither punishes nor rehabilitates.
It then goes on to makes five key recommendations addressing each of these:
- An enhanced system response for managing prolific offenders, with mandatory drug testing on arrest, diversion into treatment, multiagency support and the use of electronic tags to enforce compliance.
- Streamlining the charging process, freeing up capacity to deal with the most serious and complex crimes.
- Improving the victim experience by using technology to create an end-to-end service for victims, with a single case officer assigned from the moment a crime is recorded.
- A new national timeliness target and greater use of technology to drive efficiency across the whole criminal-justice system and reduce long waiting times.
- Tougher and more intensive community sentences and the use of next generation tags as alternatives to custody to help manage overcrowded prisons.
I look at these two last problems and proposed solutions in more detail below.
The report argues that delays have come to be viewed as inevitable in the justice system with weary acceptance that cases will be postponed and drag on, in many cases for years. Taking its example from previous NHS targets, the report asks the government to consider a national timeliness target to drive improvement across the CJS and explore the potential for greater use of remote hearings to clear the backlog.
Punishment and rehabilitation
The report (rightly) points out that many offenders end up in custody for relatively minor offences because, having already been through the courts several times, prison is perceived as the last remaining tool available for dispensing justice for victims. Nearly a fifth of offenders sentenced to prison are there for theft offences, a large proportion of which are shoplifting and bike theft. Most of these offenders will serve custodial sentences of less than six months, which is not enough time to undertake a course of treatment or to deal with the underlying drivers of their offending. These short sentences sentences are an extremely expensive use of taxpayer money and the growth of prison recalls since 2015 means that the cost and inefficiencies often go beyond the original sentence.
The report argues that one of the reasons that judges rely on prison is that community sentences do not command public confidence. They are often slow to start, commencing weeks after the sentence is passed down, reducing any deterrence effect. The report describes community sentences as “neither intensive nor rigorous enough, involving relatively undemanding work for a few hours a week, rather than full-time”, although it appears to be talking solely about unpaid work. Somewhat disappointingly, the recommendation for an acknowledged problem that community sentences are not currently effective is simply a beefed up “Intensive Community Order” leaving us to wonder how anyone whose offending is driven by alcohol, drugs, mental health, trauma etc. will be be supported to turn their life around.
The criminal justice priorities of the current Labour opposition are far from clear – apart from a tedious insistence that they will be even “tougher on crime” than the current Government. It remains to be seen whether any of these ideas will make it into next year’s election manifesto.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here