Friday, 14 August 2015

For God's Sake George, Take a Look at Criminal Justice Policy

Earlier this week the Ministry of Justice greeted the latest criminal justice statistics by celebrating record levels of prison sentences given to sex offenders in 2014. Their press release not only welcomed the harsher punishments given to the 6000 of these offenders sentenced last year. The Government seemed keen to publicise the fact that prison sentences for all offenders have been getting longer and that the proportion of serious offences given a community sentence has declined. They see as positive too the fall in the use of so-called out of court disposals- police cautions and warnings usually given for petty offences.

The consequences of the last of these trends is being shown daily in the Howard League’s excellent campaign to end the criminal courts charge. Not only are the Howard League highlighting the injustice and absurdity of imposing additional financial penalties on defendants whose criminality is born of poverty and desperation but raising the question on why on earth some of these petty offences are being brought to court at all. Just as most of the public came to see it as crazy to ban prisoners from receiving books through the post, so surely will a majority eventually accept that thefts of small amounts of food, begging,or drunkenness cry out for a problem solving response rather than a punitive one.

The use of courts for these kind of misdemeanours seems part of a broader pattern of criminalisation. The criminal statistics reveal an increase in the numbers of summary offences – the least serious- being prosecuted and sentenced. This is apparently due mainly to an increase in speed limit, vehicle insurance and TV licence offences. Other non-motoring summary offences that continued to rise during the year and the last decade include littering and truancy.

Separately this week we learned more details of the 16,000 parents prosecuted for failing to secure their children’s attendance at school, 18 of whom (ten mothers) ended up in prison. This week also saw an expensive Old Bailey trial resulting in a couple fined £1000 for outraging public decency; the judge blamed the defendants for maintaining their innocence but could easily have criticised the CPS for continuing a prosecution which while of significant interest to the public was hardly in the public interest.

In a time of stretched resources, it is odd to say the least that more and more cases are being brought before the courts unnecessarily.  A rational approach would surely see everything being done to deal with cases at the lowest and cheapest level in the system. This is what is happening in the health system where GP’s are being incentivised to reduce pressure on hospital admissions. Its what happens in the criminal justice systems of many European countries where prosecutors can settle many more cases than happens here. 

The one area in criminal justice where a sensible use of diversion  has been happening is in respect of young offenders. Figures out today show continuing reductions in the numbers of under 18’s in custody. In large part that’s because cases are diverted wherever possible by the police, and where cases go to court a wide range of alternatives are proposed to the courts and a large proportion imposed. This is precisely what’s needed for defendants of all ages.

Last week civil servants were asked to meet a public sector efficiency challenge by proposing ideas for
improving public services or save money. Categories of reform include reducing bureaucracy, improving customer services, staffing and making services work more effectively together. Keeping cases out of the court system as far as possible would meet all of these objectives and more.

The Chancellor's initiative asks respondents not to “use any profanity or abuse in your responses as it will automatically disqualify your idea”.  But for God’s sake, George  have a look at criminal justice and penal policy. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Spot on. I wrote something similar a while ago about the situation in Ireland