Criminal justice in England and Wales shouldn’t be too difficult a subject. After all, it’s hardly new. We have a system which goes back nearly 800 years to the time of Magna Carta and remains the envy of the world. Of course, times change and no system can stand still, but should the process of change really be as angst ridden as has appeared to be the case over recent weeks?
Of course, part of the problem is that what lies behind most – if not all – of the recent proposals is the need to save money because of the country’s eye-watering level of debt. Where better to look for savings? After all, doesn’t the money that goes to the criminal justice system get spent on criminals or worse, lawyers? (Or worse still, lawyers representing former politicians who are now criminals!)
The problem for the Government is that it is difficult to reduce crime on the cheap. Take knife crime – an excellent example of how times have changed and how the criminal justice system needs to reflect the appalling injury and loss of life caused by young men with knives.
A sensible policy might be one which said that anyone caught in unlawful possession of a knife will go to court. No more cautions or warnings. It’s a simple message. The same policy might go on to say that if anyone uses a knife then it’s definitely court, but this time the assumption will be that it’s custody as well.
Another simple message: use a knife and go to jail. But this policy needs court time, legal representation and prison space. A caution at the police station costs a lot less, even if it is only a slap on the wrist for going out with a deadly weapon. And the police seem to like the cheaper alternative. Cautions and warnings are handed out for serious sex offences including rape as well as serious offences of violence. It’s cheap but how can it be right for victims or for wider society?
Against this background, the debate about an increased discount for a guilty plea rumbles on. The current suggestion as reported is that the 50% reduction would apply only to non-violent crime. Well let’s think about the idea of a 50% reduction in sentence for a non-violent crime… such as burglary. Those burglaries that are solved are very often solved because of fingerprints or DNA left after the intruder touches an item or cuts himself having broken a windowpane. Not much chance of an acquittal there, you may think, so why should there be a reward of a big discount on sentence for admitting guilt? And what would the consequences be?
Word would soon go round; no need to sweat, if you’re caught you’ll only ‘do’ a quarter of the sentence once credit for plea and remission are combined (and then in an institution where the guards have to call you ‘Mr’ and must approach you as a client rather than a prisoner). And is it really the case that waking up to discover that someone was standing over you as you slept, before rifling through your belongings and stealing items that – whatever their material value – were priceless to you, during the non-violent crime of burglary, is less serious than being punched in a pub car park?
There are plenty of savings to be made. Those in work or on benefits that are not related to disability do not need expensive adjournments and pre-sentence reports before being ordered to perform unpaid work. The obligatory first hearings in the Crown Court for indictable only cases often achieve nothing, but are expensive in terms of time and money – have them only when needed. The list isn’t endless but there is enough to make a list. The important thing is to recognise that the means of achieving the saving must be proportionate to the overall purpose of the criminal justice system.
Let’s prosecute those who should be prosecuted and jail those who should be jailed and let’s remember that the provision of law and order is second only to the guarding of our shores in terms of the commitment that any government owes to its citizens.
The perfectly sensible proposition that the only thing that deters planned crime is the prospect of being apprehended does rather presuppose that after being apprehended what will follow will do justice to both criminal and victim.