Major new crime legislation
Last week, the government formally introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to Parliament . This is a major new piece of legislation, reminiscent of some of the larger Criminal Justice Acts passed by the New Labour government for the way it includes a wide range of measures designed to tackle dozens of criminal justice issues. It is in effect, the delivery of the promise that Boris Johnson made in the wake of his election to be increasingly tough on crime. Although the main elements of the Bill are new powers for the police and tougher sentencing for serious offenders, it does also contain some measures aimed at improving resettlement.
Some of the headline features include:
Enshrining a Police Covenant in law. The Covenant which has previously been an informal pledge that the country recognises the risks that police officers run in the course of their duties (and when off-duty) and in return will take care of those officers and their families both when they are serving and when they are retired. The Police Federation has campaigned for a formal police covenant for years and the new law will provide formal recognition and a sign of clear value to the families of officers and staff who have made sacrifices in carrying out their duties. The law will also apply to Police Specials. In addition, maximum penalties will be doubled from 12 months to 2 years for those who assault police or other emergency workers, such as prison officers, fire personnel or frontline health workers.
More police powers. A series of new laws will make it easier for police officers to stop and search those suspected of carrying a blade (a controversial measure given the continuing evidence around the racial disparity of Stop and Search practice) as well as power to enable police to better tackle unauthorised encampments, and safely manage protests where they threaten public order or stop people from getting on with their daily lives.
Tougher sentencing. A raft of new measures include: Whole Life Orders (WLOs) for child killers, with judges also allowed to impose this punishment on 18 to 20 year olds in exceptional cases – for example, acts of terrorism which cause mass loss of life. The Bill also introduces life sentences for drivers who are responsible for killing in the course of driving and ends the automatic halfway release for serious violent and sexual offenders who are sentenced to between four and seven years for offences such as GBH with intent, rape and manslaughter. It is clear that the new measures will substantially increase the prison population as they include minimum three year custodial sentences for “third strike” burglars and minimum six month sentences for adults found to possess a knife for a second time. Some aspects of community sentences will also be made “tougher” by, for instance, doubling the amount of time that offenders can be made subject to a curfew to two years. There will also be stronger youth community sentencing options, including greater use of location monitoring by GPS and longer daily curfews, providing robust alternatives to custody.
Robert Buckland, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, has started to talk up the government’s plans to improve rehabilitation services recently:
“Rather than continuing to send [offenders] back and forth to prison – doing the same thing but expecting a different result – we instead want to empower the sentencing system to use more effective community sentencing to get them off drugs and into the jobs that we know can lead them to a better life.”
The PCSC Bill includes three new measures focused on rehabilitation:
- Piloting a problem-solving court approach for certain community and suspended sentence orders.
- Simplifying the national adult Out Of Court Disposals framework.
- Improving employment opportunities by reducing rehabilitation periods for offenders, helping them to move on with their lives.
Problem-Solving Courts (PSC)
PSCs, long advocated by a large number of criminal justice experts and activists, including in particular the Centre for Justice Innovation, are described by the Home Office as “an active and dynamic path to justice providing robust rehabilitation and support to offenders who can be both prolific and vulnerable”. The approach places judges and magistrates at the centre of sentencing, rehabilitation and compliance, alongside a multi-disciplinary team ranging from probation and health professionals, to police and broader service providers.
The overarching principle is that there will be consistent judicial oversight, reviews, rewards with incentives and sanctions that focus on supporting offenders to address the problems that drive their offending behaviour. Drug Testing and Treatment Orders (fore-runners of the current Community Sentence Treatment Requirements) also had this sort of sentencer oversight but were never tried over an extended period.
PSCs provide a regime that offers more intensive or structured support for offenders sentenced to a community order or suspended sentence order with community requirements. The onus will be on the individual to actively engage in the positive elements of their sentence, combined with more reliable access to the other services they may need such as substance misuse and mental health service providers.
The model differs from existing community orders, as they will be responsive to an offender’s “criminogenic needs”, that is the things that drive their offending, like drug misuse, and allows relatively rapid changes to the balance of incentives and sanctions to be made directly by the reviewing judge.
Out of court disposals
The intention of out of court disposals has been to minimise the risk of people being drawn into the criminal justice system when there is no public interest to prosecute and their behaviour is better addressed in the long term by a less formal intervention, as necessary, with the involvement of the victim. There is an extensive evidence base that says diverting people from the criminal justice system reduces their likelihood of reoffending.
The proposed measures allow greater powers to divert offenders to support pathways, such as engagement with mental health or substance abuse services. This new power provides an opportunity for early intervention to address the underlying issues that contribute to offending behaviour.
Criminal record reform
Reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act has been promised for along time and the Government plans to introduce a rehabilitation period for some sentences of over 4 years, meaning that for non-sensitive jobs or activities they do not have to be disclosed to employers. It also intends to reduce the time that community orders and sentences under 4 years have to be revealed to most employers. These reductions in disclosure periods will also certainly improve access to employment for people looking to move away from a life of crime.