By Gareth R Roberts
This is the true story of our criminal justice system.
You won’t hear it anywhere else.
You won’t hear it in the Daily Mail, even though it self-righteously holds itself out as the clarion voice of British decency, saving our towns and villages from the mass hordes of drug-addled criminals who need to be locked away for ever increasing periods.
You won’t hear it from the Tory Party, even though, at their conference last week, Home Secretary, Priti Patel, claimed that the Conservative Party is ‘the rightful party of law and order’, standing by ‘the brave men and women of our police….against the criminals, the gangs, the drug barons and the terrorists.’
And you definitely won’t hear it from the Prime Minister – who repeated his trite pledge to recruit a further 20,000 police officers by the end of 2022 – a figure that was clearly plucked out of thin air solely because it is twice the 10,000 police officers being promised by the equally clueless Labour Party.
Because the true story of our criminal justice system in 2019 goes well beyond the utterly facile war between Labour and the Tories as to who can put the most men and women in uniform.
Let’s look at it more closely. And let’s start with the point where a crime has been reported, a suspect arrested and interviewed.
Most people then understandably expect that person to be investigated, charged, convicted and sentenced. Job done – full marks to the boys in blue, another criminal off the streets.
But, alas, that is not how it is.
Until two about two years ago – every suspect being investigated for a crime would be interviewed and then either charged or released on Police bail. Police bail would be up to a maximum of 28 days – during that time, in theory the police knew where the suspect was and the suspect knew that there was an end in sight. The police themselves were under a certain amount of time pressure to complete their investigation, liaise with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to decide whether there was enough evidence to charge before sending the suspect, now a defendant, to the Courts to start the process of justice.
That was the theory, but the reality is very different.
The systematic diminution of resources within the Criminal Justice System over the last few decades has meant that there is precious little chance of the police being able to complete an investigation and be ready to charge within a period of four weeks – and by systematic diminution, I don’t just mean the reduction in the numbers of police officers, it goes far, far beyond bobbies on the beat: it means the systematic reduction in case workers and lawyers who are employed by the CPS (the CPS saw a reduction of £200m in its budget between 2010 and 2018); it means the reduction in the number of Magistrates Courts that are now functioning in England and Wales (down from 323 in 2010, to 162 in 2018); it means the reduction in the number of crown court sitting days, which has seen the number of judges and courtrooms that are available fall dramatically over the last decade with a decrease this year from 97,400 in 2018/2019, to 82,300 in 2019/2020 – which led to Lady Justice Macur lamenting the fact that 40% of courtrooms in England and Wales will be idle in 2020. Then, there is the attempt by the Tories to destroy the Probation Service, first by cutting its budget by 40%, and then by attempting to privatise bits of it, which proved such a disaster that then Minister for Justice, Chris Grayling, was accused of taking ‘unnecessary risks’ with the safety of the general public.
So, not only are there fewer police, there are also fewer lawyers, fewer judges, fewer courts and fewer probation officers.
But is there less crime?
No, of course not.
Crime rates are pretty much the same, but, what has changed is the volume of material that is now associated with the investigation of a crime. These cuts have come at a time when mobile phone use has expanded massively, CCTV coverage is far greater, innovations in forensic analysis and Automatic Number Plate Recognition evidence have grown, all of which means that the police, the lawyers, the judges and everyone else involved in the system are having to work a great deal harder to cope with a great deal more with much reduced resources.
And the result?
Well, the result is that our criminal justice system is broken and is grinding to a halt.
So, what did the government do?
Well, it has tried to deal with crime by way of a con trick to try to deflect from the serious deficiencies in the system as a whole.
You see the limping Criminal Justice System couldn’t cope with the 28 day bail period, so, the Police and Crime Act 2017 changed that by allowing police to ‘release under investigation’ (RUI) and this is the thing that the Daily Mail and Priti Patel and the rest don’t tell you about. RUI, means a suspect leaves the police station with no bail conditions ‘until the investigation is complete’ which could be weeks, months or even years. In short, it means indefinite bail. 81% of suspects are now released on indefinite bail which translates to tens of thousands of people suspected of committing crimes being released back into the communities with little idea when the case against them will be complete – in London alone the Met Police released 17,000 suspects on RUI in 2018.
And these are not shoplifters and graffiti artists, these are people suspected of serious drug offences, gangland crimes, fraud, violence and sex offences. Indeed, people accused of sexual offences are almost certainly going to be released on RUI for prolonged periods because the investigation will inevitably involve the analysis of many thousands of pages of text and facebook messages.
And, when someone is on RUI, there are few checks on their behaviour and the police are not under great pressure to complete their investigation (and I make no criticism of police officers here, overwhelmingly, they strive towards doing the best job they can in difficult circumstances); whilst ultimately, it is more difficult to administer justice fairly and effectively if there is delay. As a defence barrister, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve asked a question along the lines of ‘well, are you sure you can remember clearly, I mean it was three years ago…’
For those innocently accused, the prolonged period can be devastating, their lives are on hold; while for those who are genuine criminals, the period can be a little free time to commit a few more crimes or sort out a bit of evidence here and there – make a few things disappear.
I don’t have the figures, but I would be intrigued as to how many people on RUI have committed further crimes during the course of their prolonged bail. Anecdotally, I know of a number of cases of domestic violence where those on RUI have gone back to their partners and committed further offences. That’s not caused by having too few ‘brave police officers’ on our streets, that is the direct result of the disgraceful and systematic underfunding of the Criminal Justice System as a whole.
More bobbies on the beat is a slogan. Nothing more. The true story of our criminal justice system is far more complicated than that, and the real way to address it must start with an acceptance that it is a system with many cogs, from judges to court ushers to probation officers, and each of these cogs needs to be given proper funding and resources.