25 August 2015
Originally published in The Guardian
The Ministry of Justice appears to be celebrating the record number of prison sentences given to sex offenders in 2014 – more than 6,000 were convicted, up 10% on 2013. But the government also seems keen to publicise that prison sentences for all offenders were longer, that a smaller proportion of serious offences were given a community sentence, and that use of out-of-court disposals – police cautions usually given for petty offences – had fallen.
The consequences of the last of these trends is being shown by the Howard League’s campaign to end the criminal courts charge – an additional financial penalty imposed on defendants regardless of their circumstances. Not only is it unjust to charge people whose criminality is born of poverty and desperation, it’s absurd that some petty offences are brought to court at all. Just as most people came to disagree with the ban on prisoners from receiving books through the post, surely they will eventually accept that crimes such as stealing food, begging or drunkenness usually cry out for a problem-solving response rather than a punitive one.
The use of courts for these kinds of misdemeanours seems part of a broader pattern. The criminal justice statistics reveal an increase in prosecutions for summary offences – the least serious. This is apparently due mainly to an increase in the speed limit, vehicle insurance and TV licence offences, but prosecutions for littering and truancy have also risen over the past decade. More than 16,000 parents were prosecuted in 2014 for failing to secure their children’s attendance at school, 18 of whom (10 mothers) ended up in prison.
In a time of stretched resources, it is odd that more and more cases are being brought before the courts unnecessarily. A rational approach would surely see cases dealt with in the community where possible. This is happening in the health system: the allocation of resources through the Better Care Fund is partly conditional on achieving reductions in emergency admissions to hospital. It happens in the criminal justice systems of several European countries [pdf], where prosecutors can settle many more cases out-of-court than happens in the UK. In Germany prosecutors can terminate cases by imposing small fines, arranging mediation sessions between offender and victim and even requiring an offender to perform unpaid community service work.
One area of criminal justice in England and Wales where I believe progress is being made is in respect of young offenders. While more than 3,000 under-18s were locked up in June 2008, the latest figures show this has fallen to fewer than 1,000 in June this year. Increasing numbers of cases are being diverted away from the formal court system by the police, and dealt with more effectively with informal warnings, apologies and referral to constructive activities and support.
A guide [pdf] recently published by the Centre for Justice Innovation argues that diverting young offenders away from the court system not only reduces immediate costs of prosecution but, by placing those who need assistance into early contact with health, mental health and social services, it produces better outcomes than formal processing. It quotes an Audit Commission 2009 estimate that more than £100m is saved in lifetime costs if one in 10 young offenders can be diverted into effective support.
Even when cases do go to court, there are a wide range of alternatives to prison sentencing – such as reparation, supervision and support to families – which still undercut the £65,000 annual cost of a youth prison place, let alone the £200,000 price tag of a bed in a secure children’s home.
Civil servants were asked this month to meet a public sector efficiency challenge by proposing ideas to improve public services and save money. Categories of reform include reducing bureaucracy, improving customer services, staffing and making services work more effectively together. Keeping cases involving all age groups out of the court system as far as possible would meet all these objectives and more.