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It's time to take back control of our criminal justice system

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Take back control; the most memorable slogan of 2016. But when it comes to the way our criminal justice system is run, how much control do we actually have and how much should we want?

In a new GovernUp report out today, we argue for more local control over criminal justice. Not because devolution is a good in and of itself. But because doing so is likely to be the best way of improving outcomes for the public at a time when budgets are being squeezed.

A cursory glance at the figures shows the extent to which our criminal justice system is failing. There are record backlogs in our courts, up 34% since March 2013, reflected in victims having to wait longer than ever to get justice: the average time taken from an offence to an offender receiving some kind of disposal has risen to almost six months (171 days) for all criminal cases, up 15% since 2010. Our prisons are overcrowded and on the brink of crisis. The same proportion of people leaving prison (60%) reoffend as over a decade ago.

These figures threaten the fundamental integrity of the criminal justice system. Already, more than a third of the British population do not have confidence in the system’s effectiveness. Only 55% of those who have been a witness say they would do it again. If victims and witnesses stop reporting crimes and giving evidence at court, the system will literally grind to a halt.

The government introduced Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in 2012, in order to address the accountability deficit in policing. Yet whilst PCCs now have a mandate to improve policing and cut crime, their leverage over other parts of the criminal justice system is negligible. The Crown Prosecution Service and Courts Service are centrally managed institutions that report upwards to Whitehall, rather than downwardly to citizens. Prisons are heavily constrained by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Probation contracts are centrally commissioned by the Ministry of Justice.

In our paper we argue that local leaders should be empowered to join up services across a local area – in order to deal with the root cause of crime and end the cycle of repeat offending – rather than continuing to pay for failure.

That should start with the way young offenders are managed. Charlie Taylor’s report into youth justice was finally released this week. Yet one of his most important recommendations – that local areas should be given responsibility for management of the youth justice system – appears to have been ignored by the government. That is a mistake. Many of the levers for preventing young people from ending up in prison lie outside of criminal justice – in better education, health, or access to housing. Yet, currently, local areas lack both the means and incentive to invest in alternatives to prison. Moreover, for those young people that do end up in prison, local areas should be given an opportunity to commission their own secure provision, enabling young people to stay closer to their families and communities rather than travelling miles to the nearest Young Offender Institution.

Devolution should also extend into the way offenders are charged, prosecuted and sentenced. The rate at which crimes, such as domestic abuse and hate crime, are charged and successfully prosecuted and the number of successful trials vary hugely across the country. Yet there is virtually no local scrutiny of performance. Police and Crime Commissioners should be given a role in overseeing the performance of local prosecutors and magistrates’ courts. And if PCCs want to change the way low level offenders are dealt with outside the court, or introduce New-York-style problem solving approaches within it, they should be free to work with the relevant criminal justice agencies in trying new approaches.

Finally, devolution offers an opportunity to deal with the cycle of repeat offending, which drives so much of the cost of criminal justice. If PCCs or directly elected mayors were given responsibility for managing the budget for short sentenced prisoners or women prisoners, as well as a role in overseeing probation services, they would have a powerful financial incentive to invest in community alternatives, which are cheaper and more effective at both punishing and rehabilitating those offenders.

Offering more of the same can often appear the least risky option for policymakers. But more of the same solutions can only produce more of the same results: long delays in justice, overcrowded prisons, high rates of reoffending and low public confidence. Instead, the government should seize the opportunities presented by devolution, particularly in some of our urban metropolitan areas, like Greater Manchester and London, where there is already strong governance and a clear mandate for change. It is time to take back control of our criminal justice system.


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