Opinion: Crime and Criminal Justice – Doing what works to cut crime

Scales of Justice - Some rights reserved by CitizensheepThe criminal justice system is a vital front-line public service, one that most people think they will never come into contact with.  Yet any one of us could be a victim of crime.   Any one of us could be falsely accused.  The Liberal Democrats in coalition deserve credit for bringing crime down to an all-time low but it is still too high and must be reduced.

At conference in Glasgow, the Federal Policy Committee will present its policy paper Doing what Works to Cut Crime.  It is the result of work carried out by a policy-working group I chaired over the last twelve months.

Its proposals are unashamedly based on the evidence of what is effective rather than tough-sounding soundbites.  The more crimes prevented, the smaller the number of victims and the lower the cost to the taxpayer.

In this article I want to set out those proposals and hopefully start a debate.

Crime Prevention

The first way to reduce crime is to stop it happening in the first place.  We would take steps to ‘design it out’ of new buildings – even simple changes can make a big difference.

We need to identify as early as we can those most at risk of offending.  We must focus with them on diversionary activity such as restorative justice panels in communities and schools and through the use of peer workers.

The criminal justice system spends too much time dealing with people who do not belong there.  That wastes money and needlessly criminalises people.  The problem of personal drug use is a health one first and foremost.  Subject to further work, we would adopt the Portuguese model whereby those who possess drugs for personal use would be diverted into treatment.  We would undertake a review to assess whether the regulated cannabis market in Colorado and Uruguay is one we would want to adopt here.  We propose ending imprisonment for those caught with drugs for personal use but we would take a tough line on those who deal them.

We would review and extend the police mental health liaison and diversion schemes to ensure more appropriate treatment for those with mental health problems.

We will ensure the police take cybercrime seriously by recruiting more dedicated detectives and requiring schools to nominate a named person for victims of cyber-bullying.  We would reduce the bulk mining of data on innocent people and criminalise revenge pornography, a disgraceful abuse of trust.

Policing

The second way to reduce crime is to reform policing.  We would encourage more cooperation between forces and mergers where the community wishes.  We would measure crime by the harm it causes and widen the use of crime maps.

Too many people are stopped and searched based on crude stereotypes.  We propose the wider use of police body cameras and a tighter Code of Practice to guard against over-use and we would remove perverse incentives that encourage stop and search.

We would abolish Police and Crime Commissioners and replace them with democratic, locally accountable Police Boards.  The system of PCCs has brought record low turnouts, great expense and several high profile problems.

Victims of Crime

We would ensure that victims of crime are far better treated.

We propose a national helpline to provide support for those who have suffered sexual offending and we would ensure that those guilty of hate crimes are sentenced more harshly.  We will re-double our efforts to end the scourge of Female Genital Mutilation.  We propose that schools teach awareness not only of FGM but violence against women and girls generally.

The courts

In the courts, we would improve the diversity of the Magistracy, replace wasteful court hearings and completely review Ministry of Justice procurement.

Legal aid is an essential component of the criminal justice system and a mark of a civilised society.  Legal representation makes trials run more smoothly, reduces the burden on witnesses and gives the defendant access to good advice.  The last few years have seen cuts in legal aid.  We propose an injection of new money through the use of restrained funds and a requirement for company directors to take out insurance for the purposes of fraud prosecutions that concern them and their companies.

Rehabilitation

We would adopt a relentless focus on rehabilitation.  Re-offending remains stubbornly high; reducing it must be a priority.   We would conduct a full review of criminal sentencing to ensure that offences are sentenced rationally in relation to each other.

Going to prison can fracture a person’s life and remove its foundations at a stroke: work, home and family.  There are people in prison who ought not to be there, particularly some women offenders.  We propose a Women’s Justice Board along the lines of the successful Youth Justice Board and we would pilot direct alternatives to prison.  We would also require courts to adopt a presumption against the notoriously ineffective short-term prison sentences of less than 6 months.

Young people should be sent to custody only when there is genuinely no alternative and work should be done to reduce the disproportionate number of young people from black and minority ethnic communities in prison.

For those who do have to be imprisoned, there should be a far better focus on pre-release planning so that, when released, they have accommodation and a job lined up.

A central plank of effective rehabilitation has to be restorative justice.  In the right case, the opportunity for a victim of crime to explain directly to a perpetrator the effect that the offending has had on them can be immensely valuable for both.   Although it is not appropriate in every case, we propose a widening of its use throughout the system.

Conference will be debating all this on Sunday 5th October from 10:50 to 12:30.  Please do come and speak in the debate and if you would like to discuss the issues in the paper, I would be very glad to do so in comments on this forum or by email.

* Geoff Payne represents the English Party on the Federal Policy Committee. He is also one of the Vice-Chairs of Federal Conference Committee. He chaired the Criminal Justice Working Group.

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6 Comments

  • Glenn Andrews 25th Sep '14 - 5:08pm

    Given the rather substantial reduction in crime rates since legalisation in those enlightened states that have introduced it; proving what many a Liberal Democrat has suspected for quite some time – we really should be putting legalisation/licensing of cannabis products on the manifesto front cover….. I would understand if we didn’t though.

  • Much of this could/ was written in 1964, 1974, 1984, 1994 and 2004. The system evolves within these sort of guidelines. What has to be evaluated is the worrying question, is the fall in reported crime etc connected with the larger numbers of persons taken off the streets and locked up, due to changes in the law which have begun to tie the hands of those responsible for sentencing.
    Regarding young offenders, in my experience as a youth offending team worker every step is usually taken to avoid custody if at all possible. No system is 100% perfect and the odd cases will happen when these may not be the case. However overall there ares not too many problems in this area, The YO numbers going through that system have reduced under this government, due to more diversionary measures at an early stage in an individuals offending, that have reduced the numbers requiring court appearances. It is not how the Daily Mail might see things but it is real..

  • Ron Tindall 26th Sep '14 - 4:43pm

    Please, please, understand that Domestic Violence should not to be included in the section on Violence against Women (as it is in the motion). Only 40% is reported, it also affects men and members of the LGBT community, requires different solutions for both victims and perpetrators, and has a serious impact on children within the family. I have proposed an amendment to the motion that will strengthen the section on Violence against Women, and introduce a seperate section on Domestic Violence. I write as a Trustee of a DV Helpline, and member of a County Police DV Strategic Board.

  • richard boyd 29th Sep '14 - 2:26pm

    Any views or proposals for Employment Tribunals?

  • Geoff Payne 3rd Oct '14 - 6:11am

    Thanks for all of the comments.

    Theakes- I do not think that the fall in crime has been caused by an increase in the prison population partly because they gave not risen and fallen in proportion and secondly because falling crime rates are happening in many jurisdictions without the sentencing policies that we have adopted. We’ll have to disagree about whether this paper could have been written in 1974 etc. but I do agree that sentencing has become a very constrained exercise.

    Ron – you make a fair point and I’ll see what I can do about the amendment.

    Richard – nothing on Employment Tribunals sadly as it was outside our remit but my own view is that the fees are now too high and are consequently acting as a real barrier to justice. I know there are vexatious claims but the power balance between employers and employees in many other cases is wrong. Arbttration remains very important.

    Glenn – interesting suggestion! I’m not sure the manifesto group will be that bold although on the evidence you cite, maybe they should be!

    Caractus – the point about treating drug addiction as a personal health issue is that it is not a statement about the effects of drug use rather a statement about how to deal with it. No-one can really say the way on drugs is working in its present guise.

    Hopefully see you at the debate!

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