Criminal courts can do more to cut reoffending rates

Originally published in Financial Times

Jane Croft

The court system can help cut crime by adopting new approaches to resolving low-level transgressions and introducing “accountability” courts to supervise offenders on community sentences, according to a study.A report by the Centre for Justice Innovation and the New Economics Foundation recommends a number of ways in which criminal courts can play a more active role in cutting reoffending rates.


The report says that, in 2013, courts are coming under increased pressure to reduce costs, with 93 court buildings being closed in the past three years.Cases still progress slowly through the criminal justice system – taking an average of 139 days in 2012 from date of offence to completion. In 2010 cases took only 128 days to be completed.


The report says the government’s proposed court reforms focus almost exclusively on legal-aid cost-cuts and efficiency but fail to take into account the potential contribution that courts can make to cutting crime by continuing to hold offenders to account after their sentence – or by resolving cases before they come to court.


It points to the example of a neighbourhood justice panel in Swindon, Wiltshire, in which a volunteer-led community resolution panel hears low-level crime and antisocial behaviour cases such as street drinking or disputes between neighbours. These offences are usually dealt with by the courts through a conditional discharge, but in this instance, the report notes, offenders and victims explain and discuss their views on an incident to resolve the case.
The report also advocates greater use of specialised courts – such as the west London drug court, which aims to address drug-related crime by helping addicts to seek treatment and monitoring the progress of those who are given drug rehabilitation orders.


The report points to evidence that supervision after sentencing can help reduce future reoffending ratesbecause defendants are brought before the same judge or magistrate to examine their progress after a sentence.For now this type of “sentencer supervision” is limited to some drug rehabilitation and other cases.Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, said sentencer supervision is also effective in cases such as domestic violence.“Monitoring offenders and bringing them back before judges after sentence can give victims a sense that these individuals are being watched and being held to account,” he said.“The government is looking at changing the way the courts are administered, and if this is being done we need to think about how they can serve the local community and empower those staff working on the front line,” he added.


The report notes that many court staff believe they lack autonomy to develop local innovation or projects effectively. In a recent study, only 30 per cent of court staff thought it was safe to challenge the way things are done at HMCTS (Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service). Before 2003, magistrates courts were run by committees of local justices, and funding came from the local authority and indirectly from Whitehall.


The government is considering setting up an independent public-interest corporation to take control of courts and tribunals as it examines options for radical reform of the courts service in England and Wales. The Ministry of Justice denied in May that it was planning a “wholesale privatisation” of the courts service, but it admitted to seeking “efficiencies” in the system to reduce costs.