Sunday, 5 June 2016

Contemporary Dilemmas in Criminal Justice

Did you know that in the early 19th century, an ancestor of former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP was transported to Botany Bay (for a theft he probably didn’t commit), where through hard work and enterprise he started to accumulate the family fortune? Or that David Davis MP has brought a case to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg while simultaneously campaigning for the UK to leave the court’s jurisdiction?  Or that one of the suspects acquitted of involvement in planning the 7/7 terror attacks in London now teaches citizenship to new arrivals in the UK?

I do, thanks to an excellent conference organised by the Oxford Centre for Criminology yesterday to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Anecdotes apart, three important themes emerged from the day’s deliberations on contemporary dilemmas in criminal justice.

First, justice is in trouble. At the international level there are growing questions over the effectiveness of mechanisms for holding the powerful to account for grave crimes after the dismissal of Kenyan cases at the ICC. Last year also saw an increasing resort to the death penalty- Clive Stafford Smith told us that Pakistan currently has 8,262 prisoners on what is the world’s largest death row.

Domestically, criminal justice is, in the words of one participant, running on fumes and goodwill. Grieve revealed that without continuing falls in crime during his time in office, the system would have collapsed. One consequence of resource pressures on prosecutors, courts and lawyers is a heightened risk of miscarriages of justice.

Second, despite that fall in crime, law enforcement and justice agencies are facing new sets of challenges which existing ways of working look increasingly ill- suited to meet. Whether investigating fraud and cybercrime or responding to growing number of allegations of sexual offences - likely to multiply during the Goddard review- new methods are needed which are better attuned to the private and complex nature of much of this activity. More police on the beat- the favoured political refrain - is not going to crack it.  The overlap between illegal migration and criminal justice also presents new dilemmas for policy and practice.

As for terrorism, serious concerns were raised about the criminal and civil law response to suspects which were described as lacking coherence, rationality and legitimacy. While ex -Met chief Lord Ian Blair  did warn that further atrocities –thus far thankfully but sometimes narrowly avoided –could herald a yet  more draconian regime,  the Conference heard powerful arguments for refocussing  the law  relating to the preparation of acts of terrorism, the use of secret evidence and the role and accountability of the security services.

The third theme to emerge was that paradoxically perhaps, there may be a window for constructive and potentially radical criminal justice reform. Grieve said that Michael Gove’s retreat on legal aid reform means that reducing prison numbers is the only option for balancing the justice budget. That is clearly not the only reason for seeking to cut the prison population. Felicity Gerry QC denounced the whole system as “rubbish” at dealing with vulnerable defendants, arguing for fundamental change in how criminality by women is defined and dealt with. The conference heard proposals to strip magistrates of their powers to imprison, require courts to consider family impact statements prior to sentencing and strengthen sentencing guidelines for women.

Could these and other reforms happen, not just in respect of women, but others in conflict with the law? The climate of political, public and media opinion may be more favourable than for some time and the loosening of central government control over criminal justice agencies may encourage innovation in England and Wales at least. 

Change whether at home or abroad will require both technical knowledge about what to do and the political will to do it. The first of these should receive a boost from the establishment of Oxford’s Global Criminal Justice hub which will develop a research agenda to inform future policy development. As for political will, this can be nurtured by the kind of advocacy, public debate and commitment to progressive reform that was evident throughout the day.   As Stafford- Smith exhorted us, “never apologise for helping countries to do the right thing”- not least our own.


1 comment:

  1. JPs are neither qualified or competent to imprison anyone. All they can do is award short sentences which are always counter-productive. Of course they should have these powers removed immediately.
    Additionally Crown Court judges should be audited to assess whether their sentences actually achieve what the are supposed to do. If they do not the judge should account for his or her failure. I do not see why they should be exempt from this when every other business, service or profession is. I suspect that most sentences of imprisonment are ineffective, but no one knows.
    I really think that those who assess effectiveness ought always to have at least one person who has served a sentence of not less that 2 years in prison. No one else is really qualified.