Opinion: Tell us your views on a fair, liberal criminal justice system

The prevention, detection and prosecution of crime and the sentencing and rehabilitation of offenders is one of the fundamental roles of the government and the independent judiciary. It is also something that matters enormously to the electorate. No-one wants to be a victim of crime. No-one wants to be accused of a crime they did not commit.  Many offenders would want to rehabilitate themselves and live a decent life in the future.

For too long, crime policy has suffered from an obsession shared by successive Labour and Tory Governments of seeking to be ever tougher than the last and yet completely ignoring evidence of what works in reducing crime.

The Liberal Democrats are different to the other parties because we are not dogmatic and we listen to the evidence. That has led us to propose policies that are more enlightened than the other parties and, most importantly, more effective. Examples include our policy on drug law reform, which was passed recently at Federal Conference. There is a growing feeling that people would rather that an incoming government did what was likely to work rather than what sounded tough but which was likely to fail, thereby creating more victims of crime and wasting more public money.

The Crime and Criminal Justice Policy Working Group was set up by Federal Policy Committee to focus on what works in terms of preventing crime, reducing reoffending, and building and maintaining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system.

There are many things to consider. Crime is falling and yet the rate of re-offending remains stubbornly high. Far too many people still fear crime. There is much work to do to in order to prevent crime and make communities feel safe. Cybercrime is a particular problem. Part of the solution might involve seeking to ‘design out’ crime from new products and by planning new developments in a way that minimises the opportunity for crime to be committed. Wider Restorative Justice in the community is another proposal.

Policing reform is also on the agenda with questions remaining over the relatively new system of Police and Crime Commissioners, the number of police forces, confidence levels in the police and the role of, for example, stop and search. It imperative that communities can have faith in the police and that the tradition of policing by consent remains intact, without political interference.

The Criminal Justice System itself is inefficient. Successive legal aid reforms (i.e. cuts) and the outsourcing of services like prisoner transport and court interpreting have taken their toll. It is now under significant stress. We desperately need a court system that is modern, effective and accessible. Victims and witnesses need to be assured that cases in which they are involved will be properly prosecuted and that they will be fairly treated. Everyone accused of a criminal offence must be afforded high quality representation so that, if they are not guilty, they can be acquitted and even if they are guilty, they can have a fair trial. Yet public money is short.

Although the prison population is levelling off, it remains significantly higher than it was two decades ago and at a comparative level far beyond that of other European countries.  It costs a considerable amount of public money to maintain. There are still disproportionate numbers of people from particular minority groups in custody and issues remain around the imprisonment of women. Although there are offenders for whom only a prison sentence can be justified, on the evidence, prison can be ineffective at reducing crime. When part of a sentence, Restorative Justice can be very effective in the right cases and it can be extremely helpful for victims of crime.

The Policy Working Group is interested in all of these issues. We have prepared a Consultation Paper that asks a range of questions on those and other related subjects. To access the paper, click here. Please do feed in your views to [email protected].

We are also holding a Consultation Session at Federal Conference in York. It is going to be in Meeting Room 5 at the Novotel, York at 3pm on Friday 7th March. Please do come along and let us know your views.

* Geoff Payne is the Chair of Federal Conference Committee.

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3 Comments

  • Melanie Harvey 5th Mar '14 - 11:25pm

    Sadly there is more done about victimless crime than where there is an actual victim it seems. To cut back on any potential police corruption involved where there is a said victim, legal aid should be afforded to the victim also in violent physical abuse, thus the prevention of making them a victim twice over which all to often case can be greatly reduced. In point of fact for them not to be is wholly unfair..

  • Shirley Campbell 8th Mar '14 - 10:02pm

    May I suggest that drug law reform should be high on the agenda of any reform of the criminal justice system.

    Anecdotally, and I speak as I find, the local constabulary in North Devon delights in pursuing and criminalising anyone found cultivating cannabis, or merely in possession of cannabis. Apparently, hunting down such “criminals” is its top priority, whereas addressing the issue of local thugs terrorising retired women, abusing them and their property, is off its agenda.

    Anyone for footballs aimed at a glazed patio door?

  • Geoff Payne 11th Mar '14 - 7:40am

    Thanks for those comments – both of which relate to policing priorities. I agree that drugs law reform is very important. The solutions to many of the problems that propel people into the criminal justice system actually lie outside the criminal justice system and dealing with the issue of drugs effectively would make a big difference. One of the questions that we ask in the consultation paper relates to whether we should build in an assessment of harm into the crime figures to give the police an incentive to focus on those things that really harm people as opposed to those things that make the clear-up rate look most impressive. We have an open mind about that. I am not convinced about legal aid for victims of crime given the challenging financial circumstances we face but there is a lot we can do for victims of crime without that. We are looking into those things at present. Thanks again for the comments.

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