By Peter Hoskin
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Sometimes it feels as though last year’s riots are the great forgotten issue in British politics, long since submerged by Europe, the banks and all that. But, thankfully, they do still surface in Westminster’s consciousness on occasion, and did so yesterday during Nick Herbert’s speech at Policy Exchange. The Minister of State for Police and Criminal Justice highlighted how swiftly the justice system dealt with the perpetrators at the time — “In the first month, 1,700 people were charged and brought before the courts. By June this had risen to more than 3,000 with just under 2,000 convicted” — and how that had contributed to the riot’s resolution. And then he asked a question: “If criminal justice agencies are capable of working together to bring offenders before the courts so quickly, why do the wheels of justice routinely grind so much more slowly?”
This, basically, is what underpins the government’s White Paper on ‘swift and sure justice’, also released yesterday. The idea is that the justice system should routinely be faster, more energetic and more imaginative in responding to crime — and with the purpose of preventing further crime. To use one of the examples that Herbert gave, here’s how it might work:
Last month, in Kent, a Lithuanian lorry driver was banned for drink-driving a little over two hours after being charged.
Normally, having failed a breathalyser test, the driver would have been charged and bailed to appear before magistrates at a future date, perhaps a couple of weeks later. During that period, the driver would be free to continue driving, and there is, of course, the very real risk that he wouldn't turn up in court.
But in this case, the driver appeared at court from the police station via the virtual court system. He was charged with the offence at 9.21 am, pleaded guilty, and by 11.35 am, he was disqualified from driving for 36 months, fined £1,500 and ordered to pay costs.
And there are a hundred other ways that this sort of justice might manifest itself, from ‘flash incarceration’ to more flexible opening times for magistrates’ courts. And if this all sounds a bit like Labour’s unpersuasive experiments with on-the-spot fines, don’t worry. Even if not every offender is fast-tracked into our over-stuffed prisons, the aim is that they will be gripped quickly and tightly enough that they actually feel the hand of the law on their collars. Besides, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that these methods work, whether in cutting costs, cutting crime or cutting reoffending.
But there’s a wider principle here that is about as significant as the specifics. For some time now, the justice system has become more and more centralised, whether in the number of cases being dealt with at (costlier, more cumbersome) Crown Courts, or in the gap between the public’s priorities and the judiciary’s. And this has created a tension with the Coalition’s policing policy, which — particularly in the case of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) — is largely about decentralisation.
But now this White Paper seems to resolve some of that tension, superimposing the ideals behind the Coalition’s police reforms onto the justice system. It’s not just its heavy emphasis on the role of the magistrates’ courts, but also this passage from Herbert’s speech:
‘We have already announced that PCCs should take on the commissioning of local victim services.
And I have always been clear that we should keep the door open to PCCs having a greater role across the criminal justice system.
No decisions have been taken, but we are actively considering whether PCCs should take on the commissioning of services for offenders.
And over time, I see the potential for PCCs to become local leaders in the delivery of criminal justice services, working with local criminal justice partnerships to implement that vital cross-criminal justice system reform on the ground.’
Elected PCCs already looked like a radical democratic policy. And yet there could be more to come from them.