Coronavirus has exposed many of the fragilities of the criminal justice system, but the challenges of delivering justice run much deeper.
In recent months the backload that has emerged as a result of court closures due to lockdown has created stark headlines. More importantly though, it has thrown fresh light on the fact that even before the pandemic the delays in getting cases to court could be significant.
In the world of criminal justice it is no good to simply return to “pre-covid” levels of provision, we need to vastly improve on the situation. In the words of Gladstone, justice delayed is justice denied and that is true for all parties, both victims and the accused.
Policing often gets the attention when discussing crime, because the men and women in uniform are literally on the front line of preventing crime and tackling criminals. The arrest however is just the tip of the iceberg and we often neglect the work in investigation, prosecution and ultimately punishment and rehabilitation. If we want to reduce crime, and improve the protection of victims we need to ensure that the whole system is working effectively and seamlessly.
The separation between the police and the judicial parts of the process are absolutely appropriate and must be preserved, but whilst the decision making at each stage needs to be independent the system needs to be connected. Police & Crime Commissioners are ideally placed to bring about the change that is needed.
In Thames Valley, I chair the Local Criminal Justice Board. These exist in each region and provide the link between all of the agencies involved in delivering justice: the police, Crown Prosecution Service, prison governors, probation, the courts service, victims services and representatives of the judiciary and defence counsel. Although this body has no formal power, the strong relationships built round this table - these days a virtual table - can deliver real change, both large and small.
It is fair to say that the goodwill and desire to collaborate that we have nurtured in Thames Valley does not seem to be repeated across the whole country. I hear some horror stories of different agencies seeming working against each other rather than cooperating. That is certainly not the case here. Some of the achievements may seem incredibly small, such as ironing out problems with paperwork between agencies so that prisons understand all of the risks relating to prisoners being transferred to them. Some are significantly larger, such as the successful rollout of video conferencing for use in courts. Coronavirus has unsurprisingly accelerated the use of such technology but it was already embedded and saving police officer time well before the pandemic struck.
We need a whole system approach to deal with criminality from arrest through to reform.
In May 2019 Thames Valley Police launched a programme called Endeavour (an obvious connection with Morse from his old Force) to improve the quality of investigations. With a national shortage of detective and a focus on response, the often slow and sometimes unrewarding work of investigations can easily be undervalued. Of course a large part of policing should be about prevention, but inevitably some crimes will still take place, and the response to these incidents, to find the truth, to hold those responsible to account really matters. A great deal of police work overlaps with that of other agencies, but one thing only the police are equipped to do is to investigate crime and bring criminals in front of the courts. Much of the Endeavour programme is about getting the basics right, but also about embracing new technology and dealing with current challenges such as disclosure. Over thirteen work streams, officers are trained and supported to ensure that investigations are of a higher standard, that they more regularly meet the thresholds for prosecution and that victims are kept informed of progress. There is still much work to do, particularly on liaison with victims of crime, but it is clear that these efforts are paying off. From April to December last year “positive outcomes” - that’s the jargon for detections - increased by 25.7% across all types of crimes. Serious offences have always been well investigated but this improvement shows a change in the way the bulk of offences are dealt with. It is a trend that must continue.
Progress through the courts is benefitting from new technology. The judiciary, who rightly guard their independence carefully, have engaged with other agencies to ensure that there are more opportunities for victims, witnesses and police officers to give evidence remotely. Even before coronavirus the new video suite at HMP Bullingdon reduced the need to transport prisoners to court and therefore reduced delays and costs to the system. One of the biggest frustrations for the public is the issue of sentencing. It is one area where judges have a surprisingly small amount of flexibility. It is an issue for Parliament to resolve, but more clarity about the sentence that will actually be served is essential and part of the solution can be the use of electronic tagging and monitoring to be used as part of a sentence.
Once the jury have delivered their verdict and a sentence has been handed down the prison and probation service is by far the most neglected part of the process. I am firmly of the view that prison should be a place of punishment, but that does not prevent it from also being the start of the process of rehabilitation. We all know that reoffending rates are far too high, and giving people a fresh start in life after prison with the education, treatment and support they need doesn’t simply help them as individuals but prevents more people from becoming victims of crime in the future.
Following successful trials, the National Probation Service are about to begin expanding the range of electronic monitoring available, including sobriety tags that can monitor an individuals consumption of alcohol. These new options can make a massive difference when it comes to ensuring compliance with license terms when someone first leaves prison, and just as importantly it can be an important building block for ex-offenders to find work and a stable home.
In Thames Valley the Police & Crime Commissioner works closely with several prisons and charitable organisations to provide support for those leaving prison with the aim of reducing reoffending. At the end of 2020 we hosted a virtual conference on the subject that brought together employers who were able to offer opportunities to those leaving prison. Now in 2021 the PCC is leading a bid across Thames Valley to improve provision for prison leavers. The more people who can find a job and a place to live when they return to the community, the more people we can stop from committing crime in the future.
Whilst the focus at the moment is understandably on the backlog in court cases caused by coronavirus there is so much more to do. In Thames Valley the courts are largely up and running as normal, with COVID-secure practices in place, but this is no time for complacency. We must take the opportunity that increased attention on criminal justice gives in order to improve the entire system from the moment of arrest right through to release and reform.