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What is the criminal justice system for?
Crest Advisory highlights the lack of a clear vision for the criminal justice system and the need for more transparent performance measures.

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This is a guest post by Harvey Redgrave (@Harveyred1) of Crest Advisory.

Rethinking performance measurement in the justice system

Most of us know instinctively what a good school looks like (happy kids, good educational attainment) or a successful hospital when we see one (improvements in patient health). But when it comes to the criminal justice system – the collection of agencies encompassing the police, prosecution service, courts, probation, prisons, and victims and witness services – things become more murky.

Nine months ago, we set out to find better ways to measure criminal justice performance. Along the way we had lots of interesting discussions with people across all these parts of the criminal justice system about how to do this. But what was quite startling was that almost nobody agreed on what ‘good’ for the system as a whole actually looked like. In other words, ‘what to measure’ was as a big a question as ‘how to measure’. In our latest report, we propose a new framework for enabling police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and the public who hold them to account to understand what good looks like.


Following various reforms to policing (including the publication of crime maps and a new, more public-facing inspection framework), it is now more possible than it used to be for the public to understand how to assess whether their police service is doing a good job. But how many people would know how to assess the performance of local courts? Or the quality of services delivered to victims and witnesses? Or whether the prison and probation service are successfully punishing and rehabilitating offenders? The answer is very few.

There is a strand of thinking that greater public transparency over these services is neither realistic, nor desirable. When it comes to services like prisons and probation, it is argued that the public just want broad reassurance that things work, and are happy for representatives within the system to analyse performance information on their behalf. This argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Public opinion

Firstly, it’s simply not true that the public aspire to a position of blissful ignorance. In a public poll we commissioned for this report, the vast majority of respondents said they felt it was important to be informed about criminal justice services (though only a small minority felt well informed in practice). For example, 85% of people felt it was important to be informed about the courts, whilst only 29% feel well informed about them. Our poll also shows that the public are much less punitive than often imagined: the vast majority think the best way to cut crime is through better prevention (either working with parents or in schools) rather than traditional ‘enforcement’ i.e. longer prison sentences and/or arrests.

Secondly, even if we were to accept the argument that criminal justice services are different to other public services in not requiring public transparency, it is not even clear that the people elected to cut crime and keep us safe – PCCs – have a clear sight of how their local justice services are performing. How have we ended up here?

What does success look like?

A key problem is the lack of a common view as to what success should look like, which means individual criminal justice agencies often act in ways that run contrary to the best interests of the system as a whole. For example, courts staff are measured by HMCTS against the extent to which courts are in use. As a result, more trials are scheduled than can be heard so that there are backups when one trial cannot proceed. This leads to costs being incurred elsewhere – for example, witnesses who spend a day waiting to give evidence for a trial that is not then heard, and who may then be more likely to disengage from the process.

Hidden probation

Another problem is that despite promises to expand the powers of PCCs, many are still unable to access basic performance data and thus are denied the ability to scrutinise how the system is performing as a whole. Data from probation companies – for example, relating to the proportion of ex-offenders being successfully placed in a home or job – can be hard to access. Even where individual agencies do share performance data locally, it is collected in different formats, according to metrics agreed in Whitehall, rather than locally, making meaningful analysis impossible. As a result, PCCs are left in the dark about how local justice services are doing and are unable to hold different parts of the system to account.

Finally, the measures by which individual agencies are held to account are themselves often clunky and poorly designed, driving perverse behaviours. For example, focusing on conviction and/or charge rates in isolation may lead to ‘easy’ cases being pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service and police. Similarly, holding probation companies to account for completion of community sentences may lead to breaches being under-reported.

An appetite for reform

The good news is that there is a huge appetite for reform. When we spoke to PCCs they told us that they would like to see the Ministry of Justice set out a clearer vision as to what the CJS is there to achieve. They were also in favour of being asked to achieve a limited number of shared outcomes, which would incentivise the different agencies of the CJS to work together, not just within criminal justice, but with other public services too, such as health, housing and schools. (PCCs recognise more than most that the key levers for reducing crime often lie outside of the formal CJS).

In our report, we make four key recommendations.

  1. The Ministry of Justice should clarify what it believes the CJS is there to achieve. In our view, this should be relatively simple: the criminal justice system’s mission should be to reduce the harm caused by crime and strengthen communities.
  2. That vision should be underpinned by a small number of nationally agreed outcomes by which all local justice services would be (jointly) held to account, with local areas given discretion over how these were achieved. These would include better prevention, swifter justice, rehabilitation, greater legitimacy and reducing harm to victims.
  3. In areas with strong civic leadership and devolved budgets – notably those places with metropolitan mayors, such as London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester – services should be empowered to join together rather than operating in silos. Specifically, Police and Crime Plans should be replaced by Scotland-style ‘Local Improvement Plans’, in recognition of the fact that the key levers for preventing and reducing crime often lie in better health, housing, jobs and training.
  4. Finally, every local criminal justice board in the country should have to publish a standard scorecard of criminal justice performance, enabling comparative benchmarking between areas, and ensure it is publicised and accessible to local communities online and free of charge. Only then will people be given the tools to shine a light on underperformance and to demand change.

Millions of people in this country depend upon a healthy, functioning criminal justice system. It is time we provided clarity as to precisely what it is we want that system to achieve.

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