Criminal justice chaos

‘The problems that plague the criminal justice system are not rooted in an imagined “Leftist” criminal justice culture; they spring directly from the near-obliteration of the justice system by budget cuts of nearly 50 per cent over the past decade’

Jurisprudence Wig & pen

After three years in which the issue of criminal justice barely flickered onto the Downing Street radar, one might have expected those working within the system to be encouraged by the mood music of the early days of Boris Johnson’s premiership. The new PM has telegraphed in a series of announcements that a focus on crime is to form a central plank of the new government’s domestic policy.

Some 20,000 new police officers are to be recruited. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will receive an £85 million cash injection. New prisons with capacity for 10,000 extra prisoners and £100 million for technology to beef up security have been promised. A review has been set up to look into the way in which the most dangerous offenders—those convicted of serious violent or sexual crimes—are sentenced, with a working hypothesis that the courts are currently too soft on hardened criminals.

In his erstwhile Daily Telegraph column Johnson identified the “need to root out the Leftist culture” of “our cock-eyed crook-coddling criminal justice system”. As he told the Daily Mail last month: “Left-wingers will howl. But it’s time to make criminals afraid—not the public.” And the key to making criminals afraid is, according to the Prime Minister, essentially twofold: more police and longer prison sentences.

Regrettably, while the criminal justice system is indeed on life support, the government’s apparent prescription will not cure the patient; it will kill him stone dead.

Putting aside the question of whether the prime minister’s pronouncements are the products of true belief or political calculation, the problems that plague the criminal justice system—the problems which mean that criminals are fearless and victims, defendants and the general public are routinely denied justice—are not rooted in an imagined “Leftist” criminal justice culture; they spring directly from the near-obliteration of the justice system by budget cuts of nearly 50 per cent over the past decade.

The 20,000 police officers that are pledged will not even replace the officers cut since 2010, at a time when crime is rising and becoming more complex to investigate and prosecute. The one-off payment of £85 million to the CPS is a drop in the ocean of a £250 million annual budget reduction, and will not atone for the fact that a quarter of Crown Prosecutors have been lost over the last 10 years. A £1 billion cut to the prisons budget led to record levels of overcrowding, violence, death and suicide as prison staff numbers plummeted by a quarter. The belated effort at recruitment is too late; the best and most experienced officers were among the first to go.

But the greater danger lies not simply in the fact that the money pledged is insufficient, nor in the depressing reheating of Michael Howard’s tried-and-failed “prison works” at a time when average prison sentences are already increasing year-on-year against a backdrop of rising crime. Rather it is the wilful myopia of the government to the longstanding and ever-worsening problems within our system.

Half of all magistrates’ courts have been shut down or sold off, forcing the public to travel for hours to reach their “local” court. Crown Courts are listing serious criminal cases for trial years after the alleged event, due to the Ministry of Justice’s refusal to pay for judges’ “sitting days”, meaning that perfectly serviceable courtrooms sit locked and unused in court centres up and down the country, while victims and defendants wait years for their trials. The physical condition of the court estate is a national disgrace; leaking roofs, broken walls, filthy and cracked toilets, broken heating, no catering facilities for the public and, in one court recently, raw sewage pooling on the floor.

The CPS and police are drowning in digital evidence, which now forms a crucial part of many investigations. Overburdened CPS caseworkers and lawyers have too many cases to juggle in run-of-the-mill (“volume”) prosecutions: the things that matter to the public such as burglary, robbery and street violence. Inevitably important things get missed. I see it every day. This not only means that viable prosecutions collapse, but that disclosure—the process by which the defence are entitled to receive any material reasonably capable of assisting the defence or undermining the prosecution—may not be made, running the risk that innocent people will spend years or decades in prison.

Legal aid rates are forcing good lawyers away from criminal defence. And while few will have sympathy in the abstract, if you are wrongly accused, you will want someone who knows what they’re doing, and who is not working for rates that can fall below minimum wage.

The Innocence Tax remains alive and kicking. This is the wheeze by which the government refuses you legal aid, forces you to pay privately for lawyers and, when you’re acquitted, refuses to reimburse you, forcing you to sell your house or extinguish your life savings to secure your liberty. If you’re wrongly imprisoned, the government has all but removed any chance of compensation upon your release.

But none of this is even a talking point. Nobody is asking the prime minister whether he will fund the courts needed to try all the people arrested and charged by the new police officers. Nor whether he will pay for enough prison staff not merely to warehouse all these new prisoners, but to provide them with the facilities, mental health support and education to aid their rehabilitation. A holistic overview of the crisis in the system is being forsaken for a headline-grabbing homage to Dickensian values of criminal justice.

Nothing about the Johnson proposals is going to make actual criminals more afraid. Unless there is a realistic and evidence-based approach to resourcing criminal justice, it is victims, witnesses and the wrongly accused who have the most to fear.

The author has requested that the fee for this article be donated to the Free Representation Unit (thefru.org.uk)