Confidence matters. Not just in the sense of good PR, or a nice warm feeling inside, it actually matters. Thankfully, most people have very little or no contact with the criminal justice system, but we all need to have confidence that the system is in good health and working to protect us and those around us. You do not have to believe in a rose-tinted past in order to see that this confidence has taken a battering over recent years, and indeed decades.
Justice is seen as too slow and bureaucratic; investigative outcomes are poor; sentencing is seen as weak and reoffending rates are high. We urgently need to rehabilitate both offenders, and the criminal justice system itself. Few complex systems are perfect, especially those that have to deal with human tragedy and transgression as their bread and butter, but through the leadership of Local Criminal Justice Boards, that bring together all of the agencies involved in delivering justice, Police & Crime Commissioners can be the midwives to that transformation.
Much of the attention to police performance is understandably about visibility, but that is only part of the picture. The investigative outcomes are well below where the public would expect them to be. In Thames Valley a major new initiative is being launched to ensure that investigation is at the heart of what the police do. It is one of the unique functions that can only be carried out by the police and it goes beyond the immediate response to incidence which is so often the focus of attention and resources.
The effectiveness and quality of prosecutions must also be rigorously scrutinised. Undoubtedly much of this rests with the police in terms of providing thorough investigations and properly dealing with issues such as disclosure, but the Crown Prosecution Service also need to ensure that they are not prioritising the safest cases at the expense of confidence in the wider system.
The use of technology in our courts and prisons needs to be improved. Too often the correct technology is not in place or the infrastructure isn’t up to the job. With court closures making the physical journey to secure justice a longer one for many victims and witnesses, the facilities and the support for them needs to be right first time, every time.
The public response to sentencing, often without understanding the details of the case will always be a problem, but whilst prisoners continue to be routinely released half way through the sentence that has been imposed by the courts it is little wonder that confidence is draining away. If we are to retain this policy the Ministry of Justice should seriously consider GPS tagging for all serious or violent offenders as part of their sentence. This is currently used by Thames Valley on a voluntary basis for a small cohort of offenders, but the potential of this technology is significant. Not just by imposing an additional restriction on someone’s liberty as part of their sentence, but as an active tool to reducing reoffending and helping people to turn their lives around.
This final point about reducing the chances of someone committing further crimes is key. Too often the pendulum of debate swings all the way to draconian punishment to ultra-lenient sentencing with no evidence of success. There is a balance to be struck. Whilst offenders are in prison they are their to be punished, but there is no reason why that time inside should not be used to equip them with the basic skills to become law abiding members of society on their release. Once they are outside there is no reason why they should be cast aside. Restrictions on liberty, provision of education, and where necessary treatment should all be part of how the state deals with offenders in order to keep society safe.
Reform will cost money, but as is so often the case, cash isn’t the only answer. By properly joining the system up, through bodies such as Local Criminal Justice Boards, can improve working practices, encourage the sharing of data and ensure that all agencies have a shared goal of improving justice for victims.
Just as there is no contradiction between punishment and rehabilitation, there should also be no conflict between delivering an efficient criminal justice system and at the same time ensuring public confidence in it.