Get a gavel: you are the law

Article in The Sunday Times

The August riots revealed an uncomfortable truth that is far from exceptional: most of the offenders who took to looting and burning weren't new to crime. Three-quarters of defendants had a previous conviction or caution, with an average of 15 offences each. A third of these had served a prison sentence.

The criminal justice system fails to prevent reoffending. Habitual criminals churn through the courts, undeterred and unrepentant. The police work hard to catch them, but the same faces reappear. The cycle begins when early interventions do not work. We have one of the most expensive criminal justice systems in the world. The answer cannot be more money and more tired approaches.

The aftermath of the disturbances showed us the power of community action when people come together in a shared determination to look after their streets. This social responsibility must be encouraged by the government, so that communities can take the lead in tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.

We are devolving power through crime-mapping and the direct election of police and crime commissioners to hold the police to account, giving the public more information and a greater say in how they are policed. But policing for the people will not be enough. We need justice for the people, too.

The idea of community involvement in justice is not new. Our summary justice system was founded on it. Justices of the peace have volunteered to dispense justice in their local communities for 650 years. But we can make so much more of magistrates. The Magistrates' Association says many of its 30,000 lay members, the epitome of the big society, might prefer to work in the evening or at weekends, as they did during the riots.

Greater use of video links can allow defendants to appear in court from police or prison cells and police officers to give evidence from their stations, so they need not waste hours hanging around courts. We can reduce the time taken to bring an offender to court from weeks or months to days, even hours. There needn't be procedural obstacles: the response of the criminal justice system to the riots showed what is possible. Swift justice is the exception. It should be the rule.

The riots taught another lesson: sure justice brings the consequences of offending home to the criminal. Too often this isn't the case. Labour's police targets encouraged the use of out-of-court solutions such as cautions and penalty notices for disorder, and these now account for a third of cases brought to justice. Yet just under a half of penalty notices aren't paid by offenders and have to be enforced by the courts.

It's time to look again at these. They can be useful, but applied wrongly they undermine justice and damage public confidence. One solution would be to give magistrates a role in overseeing how penalty notices and cautions are being used in local areas.

There's a gulf between notices and cautions and formal court hearings. We need more effective remedies than warnings and tickets to deal with local crime. The coalition agreement commits us to introduce new forms of restorative justice, such as neighbourhood justice panels. The public would be involved, but magistrates could be, too.

Neighbourhood justice wouldn't need traditional court buildings. It could be dispensed in community centres and village halls, visible to the public and open to scrutiny. Nor would it need all the paraphernalia of the court - crown prosecutors or lawyers funded by legal aid - because it would deal with low-level offenders who, like those who receive cautions, have accepted their guilt and agreed not to contest the case or opt for a court hearing and a defence.

Neighbourhood justice would be powerful and restorative, requiring offenders to be confronted by their victims and forcing criminals to face the consequences of their actions. The sanctions would carry weight, requiring payback to victims and the community, but also aiming to get offenders back on the straight and narrow.

Long and expensive processes are neither effective nor proportionate for minor offending. We need a smarter system in which cases are dealt with at the right level, rapidly and at lower cost. Police should have discretion to deal with minor incidents and nuisance. Simple matters could be dealt with quickly and efficiently, making full use of magistrates' expertise. Serious, complex or disputed matters could then be dealt with by courts.

Neighbourhood justice would not be an alternative to the criminal justice system, but a return of power and justice to local communities to resolve less serious crimes quickly and rigorously. Crime and antisocial behaviour still blight too many lives. We need approaches that succeed earlier, helping to prevent today's miscreants from becoming tomorrow's hardened criminals. Justice for the people should be swift and sure.

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2 October 2011

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