“THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: WHAT MIGHT BE DONE BETTER?”
An important aspect of a High Sheriff’s role during their year of office is to support those responsible for law and order in their county: the Police, magistrates, Judges, and those working for the Probation and Prison Services. It seemed appropriate for a Law and Order Conference to be organised because of the challenges currently facing those working in the criminal justice system.
The former Chief Constable of Durham, Mike Barton CBE DL; Peter Dawson, a former Governor of High Down Prison in Surrey and now the Director of the Prison Reform Trust, and Chris Daw KC, a criminal barrister and the author of “Justice on Trial”, addressed this question before a large audience at the University of Surrey on 23rd November. All three are well qualified to suggest answers as they have all reached the top of their respective professions. They have thought deeply about policing, prisons, the effects of crime on victims and society, and the use of, length of and value of prison sentences.
Since 1991 the prison population has doubled, from around 41,000 to about 82,000 currently. Longer sentences partly account for this – such as those for murder and serious offences of violence, as well as for serious sex offences including serious historic sex cases. More of those convicted are serving more time in prison. Many thousands are imprisoned for drug offences, whether as addicts or suppliers. Many people in prison are regular offenders, whose offences are often relatively minor, but have been repeated in order to pay for their drug addiction or to meet basic living needs.
The Covid pandemic and lockdowns brought many problems for individuals and for the criminal justice system. There was an increase in the reported number of domestic abuse cases in 2020/21. The mental health of people of all ages has been adversely affected by the changes in routine occasioned by Covid. The criminal courts now have very large numbers of cases awaiting trial because the number of effective trials and hearings has plummeted. The backlog doubled. More recently, the strike by criminal barristers has added to the delay in hearings. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is a truism, because victims and witnesses may lose heart or faith in the trial process and in their case being properly resolved.
It is said there are not enough police officers, criminal barristers, Crown Court judges, probation officers or prison officers available for the system to run at full efficiency. The Police are often tasked to assist the NHS and social services, and so may be away from their principal role for many hours.
Mike Barton began and ended with an emphasis on the need for pragmatism and a shift away from being hide-bound by rules. Problem Orientated Policing (POP) is pragmatic and effective.
He said Restorative Justice works, by having the victim involved in what happens to an offender. More often than not that results in the victim being satisfied about the outcome. It’s quicker than using the court process, and it’s been shown to reduce reoffending.
His view is that there has been too much legislation and often it’s been poorly drafted. The investigation of crime is what’s important and accuracy is crucial. All calls to the Police must elicit a response. He advocates the age of responsibility for crime be changed from 10 to 14 or 16, which would be in line with most countries. 10 is far too young and is cruel in his opinion.
He mentioned a case that demonstrated the problems posed by the World Wide Web. Mike says it would help Police and prosecution if internet providers answered requests for information more quickly.
In his opinion, drugs should be legalised and taxes should be used to fight addiction rather than spent on building more prisons or keeping addicts in prison. It would help to cut out the drug gangs, and the importers and dealers who make great wealth out of addicts. It would assist in stopping County Lines and the corruption of young children. In 2019 the amount of opium coming into this country was 100 times the amount entering in the 1970s. He stated that taking methadone orally kills many. Injecting heroin is a legitimate method of curing addiction or of controlling it. In addressing calls to reclassify cannabis, he said that each year 78,000 die from smoking related diseases as compared to 26 from using cannabis.
Peter Dawson advocates reducing the number of people in prison and improving conditions for those there. He said prisons are in a catastrophically poor state and during the pandemic, for almost two years, prisoners were locked in their cells for most hours of the day. Prisoners are always decried. Longer sentences make no difference and are just there to reassure the public in his view. The effectiveness of prison as a mechanism to prevent future offending is very dubious. The Prison Service needs to be trusted: with a presumption that prisoners may have internet access under supervision, books to read, and more access to the community, especially as they near release. In his view, it is deprivation of a person’s liberty which constitutes the punishment; conditions in prison should not add to that punishment.
Prison reform must be removed from party politics, he believes, as no minister stays long enough to see through any change. Anyone involved in punishment should understand there is a moral responsibility owed to those sent to prison. Sentences of imprisonment for public protection (IPPs) were morally unintelligible. Prison should be about preparation for life after release. Punishment is about regulated retribution, because the state is involved. The Prison Service should be trusted for its expertise and consistency and clarity are vital.
Chris Daw KC was 16 when he took a test to see what career he should choose. The answer was one in acting or at the Bar. Thus, he became a barrister. He didn’t question the justice system until he took silk. Then he had more time to think about what is justice. He now sees the criminal justice system as one which has a desire for vengeance, and he believes the punishments are often dangerous and damaging because they don’t prevent but increase crime. He thinks there is a ridiculous obsession with punishment and the categorisation of people as good or bad. His view is that prisons are fundamentally flawed and inflate crime because they are overused and the sentences are too long. Norway has reduced crime by reducing the use of prison and cutting the length of sentences. There, prison is basically just for those who are a risk to others.
He agrees with Mike Barton on the legalisation, licensing and regulation of the supply of drugs. Mike cited the position in the 1960s when heroin was prescribed by doctors. Chris mentioned the explosion of heroin use in Switzerland in the 1980s. The public were appalled to see needles lying everywhere and the result was that it became a constitutional right to take heroin and, being regulated, the needles in the streets and parks disappeared. The users had somewhere to go to take their heroin. Both Mike and Chris want people to look at what works. In Glasgow and Middlesbrough there have been trials along Swiss lines.
Chris’s travels to the USA and Europe to look at their systems of justice have influenced his views. He hopes that children will be taken out of the criminal justice system altogether. He said that once a child has a criminal record, almost always that child reoffends.
There were plenty of questions for the speakers and refreshments came after 2 hours, not after the planned 75 minutes. In one answer, Mike Barton said we need to look through the other end of the telescope because those in prison are there because we failed them when they were children. In answer to a question about women in prison, he referred to the Checkpoint programme that was introduced in Durham in 2015, which is a 4 month offender management programme tailored to the needs of the individual, who must be over 18. It addresses their mental health, alcohol and drug misuse issues and is tantamount to a 4 month deferred prosecution. It has proved successful in preventing reoffending and has helped women to avoid a prison term.
The verdict of those privileged to listen to the three distinguished speakers was that it was a most stimulating evening, whether or not one agreed with all the views expressed. Some said it has changed their thinking about the prosecution and sentencing of drug addicts. Many said they were not aware of the scale of the problems and why there is a need to consider whether changes in attitudes would bring benefits for society and future generations. While enjoying the delicious canapés and drinks provided by the university, the conversation was about the quality of the speeches and the ideas and arguments put forward with such clarity.
The High Sheriff not only thanks the speakers for agreeing to speak at this conference, but he is also once more most grateful to the School of Law, to its Head, Professor Bebhinn Donnelly-Lazarov, and to Associate Professor Liz Williams and the University Events Team.