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What price justice?

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Having read a colleague’s blog Is justice fair?, I turned my mind to recent media coverage regarding the prosecution rates for rape in England and Wales.  Just as a reminder, the coverage concerned the fact that the number of prosecutions is at an all-time low with a fall of 932 or 30.75% with the number of convictions having fallen by 25%.  This is coupled with a falling number of cases charged when compared with the year 2015/16.  The Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird somewhat ironically, was incensed by these figures and urged the Crown Prosecution Service to change its policy immediately. 

I’m always sceptical about the use of statistics, they are just simple facts, manipulated in some way or another to tell a story.  Useful to the media and politicians alike they rarely give us an explanation of underlying causes and issues. Dame Vera places the blame squarely on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and its policy of only pursuing cases that are likely to succeed in court. Now this is the ironic part, as a former Labour member of parliament, a minister and Solicitor General for England and Wales, she would have been party to and indeed helped formalise and set CPS policy and guidelines.  The former Labour Government’s propensity to introduce targets and performance indicators for the public services knew no bounds. If its predecessors, the Conservatives were instrumental in introducing and promulgating these management ideals, the Labour government took them to greater heights.  Why would we be surprised then that the CPS continue in such a vein?  Of course, add in another dimension, that of drastic budget cuts to public services since 2010, the judicial system included, and the pursuit of rationalisation of cases looks even more understandable and if we are less emotional and more clinical about it, absolutely sensible.

My first crown court case involved the theft of a two-bar electric fire. A landlady reported that a previous tenant had, when he moved out, taken the fire with him.  As a young probationary constable in 1983, I tracked down the culprit, arrested him and duly charged him with the offence of theft.  Some months later I found myself giving evidence at crown court.  As was his right at the time, the defendant had elected trial by jury.  The judicial system has moved a long way since then.  Trial by jury is no longer allowed for such minor offences and of course the police no longer have much say in who is prosecuted and who isn’t certainly when comes to crown court cases.  Many of the provisions that were in place at the time protected the rights of defendants and many of these have been diminished, for the most part, in pursuit of the ‘evil three Es’; economy, effectiveness and efficiency.  Whilst the rights of defendants have been diminished, so too somewhat unnoticed, have the rights of victims.  The lack of prosecution of rape cases is not a phenomenon that stands alone. Other serious cases are also not pursued or dropped in the name of economy or efficiency or effectiveness. If all the cases were pursued, then the courts would grind to a halt such have been the financial cuts over the years.  Justice is expensive whichever way you look at it.

My colleague is right in questioning the fairness of a system that seems to favour the powerful, but I would add to it.  The pursuit of economy is indicative that the executive is not bothered about justice.  To borrow my colleague’s analogy, they want to show that there is an ice cream but the fact that it is cheap, and nasty is irrelevant.   

CRCs: Did we really expect them to work?

Probation

For those of you who follow changes in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) or have studied Crime and Justice, you will be aware that current probation arrangements are based on the notion of contestability, made possible by the Offender Management Act 2007 and fully enacted under the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014. What this meant in practice was the auctioning off of probation work to newly formed Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) in 2015 (Davies et al, 2015). This move was highly controversial and was strongly opposed by practitioners and academics alike who were concerned that such arrangements would undermine the CJS, result in a deskilled probation service, and create a postcode lottery of provision (Raynor et al., 2014; Robinson et al., 2016). The government’s decision to ignore those who may be considered experts in the field has had perilous consequences for those receiving the services as well as the service providers themselves.

Picking up on @manosdaskalou’s theme of justice from his June blog and considering the questions overhanging the future sustainability of the CRC arrangements it is timely to consider these provisions in a little more detail. In recent weeks I have found myself sitting on a number of probation or non-CPS courts where I have witnessed first-hand the inadequacies of the CRC arrangements and potential injustices faced by offenders under their supervision. For instance, I have observed a steady increase in applications from probation, or more specifically CRCs, to have community orders adjusted. While such requests are not in themselves unusual, the type of adjustment or more specifically the reason behind the request, are. For example, I have witnessed an increase in requests for the Building Better Relationships (BBR) programme to be removed because there is insufficient time left on the order to complete it, or that the order itself is increased in length to allow the programme to be completed[1]. Such a request raises several questions, firstly why has an offender who is engaged with the Community Order not been able to complete the BBR within a 12-month, or even 24-month timeframe? Secondly, as such programmes are designed to reduce the risk of future domestic abuse, how is rehabilitation going to be achieved if the programme is removed? Thirdly, is it in the interests of justice or fairness to increase the length of the community order by 3 to 6 month to allow the programme to be complete?  These are complex questions and have no easy answer, especially if the reason for failing to complete (or start) the programme is not the offenders fault but rather the CRCs lack of management or organisation. Where an application to increase the order is granted by the court the offender faces an injustice in as much as their sentencing is being increased, not based on the severity of the crime or their failure to comply, but because the provider has failed to manage the order efficiently. Equally, where the removal of the BBR programme is granted it is the offender who suffers because the rehabilitative element is removed, making punishment the sole purpose of the order and thus undermining the very reason for the reform in the first place.

Whilst it may appear that I am blaming the CRCs for these failings, that is not my intent. The problems are with the reform itself, not necessarily the CRCs given the contracts. Many of the CRCs awarded contracts were not fully aware of the extent of the workload or pressure that would come with such provisions, which in turn has had a knock-on effect on resources, funding, training, staff morale and so forth. As many of these problems were also those plaguing probation post-reform, it should come as little surprise that the CRCs were in no better a position than probation, to manage the number of offenders involved, or the financial and resource burden that came with it.

My observations are further supported by the growing number of news reports criticising the arrangements, with headlines like ‘Private probation firms criticised for supervising offenders by phone’ (Travis, 2017a), ‘Private probation firms fail to cut rates of reoffending’ (Savage, 2018), ‘Private probation firms face huge losses despite £342m ‘bailout’’ (Travis, 2018), and ‘Private companies could pull out of probation contracts over costs’ (Travis, 2017b). Such reports come as little surprise if you consider the strength of opposition to the reform in the first place and their justifications for it. Reading such reports leaves me rolling my eyes and saying ‘well, what did you expect if you ignore the advice of experts!’, such an outcome was inevitable.

In response to these concerns, the Justice Committee has launched an inquiry into the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation Programme to look at CRC contracts, amongst other things. Whatever the outcome, the cost of additional reform to the tax payer is likely to be significant, not to mention the impact this will have on the CJS, the NPS, and offenders. All of this begs the question of what the real intention of the Transforming Rehabilitation reform was, that is who was it designed for? If it’s aim was to reduce reoffending rates by providing support to offenders who previously were not eligible for probation support, then the success of this is highly questionable. While it could be argued that more offenders now received support, the nature and quality of the support is debatable. Alternatively, if the aim was to reduce spending on the CJS, the problems encountered by the CRCs and the need for an MoJ ‘bail out’ suggests that this too has been unsuccessful. In short, all that we can say about this reform is that Chris Grayling (the then Home Secretary), and the Conservative Government more generally have left their mark on the CJS.

[1] Community Orders typically lasts for 12 months but can run for 24 months. The BBR programme runs over a number of weeks and is often used for cases involving domestic abuse.

References:

Davies, M. (2015) Davies, Croall and Tyrer’s Criminal Justice. Harlow: Pearson.

Raynor, P., Ugwudike, P. and Vanstone, M. (2014) The impact of skills in probation work: A reconviction study. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 14(2), pp.235–249.

Robinson, G., Burke, L., and Millings, M. (2016) Criminal Justice Identities in Transition: The Case of Devolved Probation Services in England and Wales. British Journal of Criminology, 56(1), pp.161-178.

Savage, M. (2018) Private probation firms fail to cut rates of reoffending. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/03/private-firms-fail-cut-rates-reoffending-low-medium-risk-offenders [Accessed 6 July 2018].

Travis, A. (2017a) Private probation firms criticised for supervising offenders by phone. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/14/private-probation-firms-criticised-supervising-offenders-phone [Accessed 6 July 2018].

Travis, A. (2017b) Private companies could pull out of probation contracts over costs. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/21/private-companies-could-pull-out-of-probation-contracts-over-costs [Accessed 6 July 2018].

Travis, A. (2018) Private probation firms face huge losses despite £342m ‘bailout’. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/17/private-probation-companies-face-huge-losses-despite-342m-bailout [Accessed 6 July 2018].

 

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