There has been much to comment on over the past few weeks in the field of criminal justice, just in time for my period away from the office and trying to keep away from work. Now back in harness I thought I would put down a few thoughts, and try to provoke some comment and discussion.
Televising Court Appearances
The ban on TV coverage in the criminal courts seems to have moved one step closer today with Kenneth Clarke announcing this morning that he is to allow judgements in the Court of Appeal and later in the Crown Court to be televised. It would seem that one of the main reasons for doing this according to Mr Clarke is public confidence; “What we need is public information, public confidence and above all transparency in the way the system works”
So how would such coverage be used and how would that coverage be presented to the viewing public. If all that is shown are the sentencing remarks then what format would best be used? The reality is that the footage is most likely to be used in news bulletins and set pieces, or on rolling news programmes.
If that is the case then it would seem unlikely that the sentence or judgement would be broadcast in its entirety and savvy news editors will present the parts that offer the best sound bite or headlines. The other use is perhaps the documentary or case retrospective, where the case is picked over by pundits and experts at some point in the future. Videos of clients interviews are already been sold to documentary companies and used in case documentaries. I dread that happening to one of my cases, the last thing I want is for the public to see me at 3am propped up in the corner of an interview room frantically trying to take notes.
I am all for openness in the judicial system. I welcome anything that helps the public understand what I do and what the system does. I am not sure that putting TV cameras into courts is necessarily the way forward or achieves that. How many people would in fact want to watch the sentences themselves is a wholly different question.
Although of course, and I hope you understand I am joking here, link it in with the Red Button and ask the public to reach a verdict and the Government might have a lucrative source of funding for the criminal justice system.
Cost of the Cops
In the relentless pursuit of cost savings and reducing budget deficits the think tank Policy Exchange has suggested that one way of increasing the visible presence of the police and thereby reassure the public is to have all officers commute to work in uniform. I know a lot of police officers, I come across them on a daily basis and on speaking to them, and judging by the comments made yesterday across Twitter this is an idea that is very unlikely to gain any momentum.
There are certain jobs that for very sensible reasons, you may not want your neighbours or your local community to know you do. I don’t live where I work because I choose not to bump into my clients whilst out shopping with my children or going out for a meal with my wife, and I am on the criminals side as it were.
It probably comes as no surprise that most of my clients do not really like the police. Whilst many have made drunken and ill-advised threats at the point of arrest that they are never likely to follow through, there must be other clients that mean what they say and want to cause harm to the officer and their family. Take for example Raoul Moat, on the day that he decided to settle what he perceived to be a justified grudge against those that wronged him, high on his list were police officers. What if he had simply come across a police officer on his own, on his way home, no PPE and no radio?
It also means that the officer is on duty from the moment that they leave their front door, for which they are not paid. Would the public know that the officer walking up the road is on or off duty, it would not matter to them at all. They would still approach them and would still expect a response. The fact that the officer is unlikely to have his equipment, his radio and be alone puts him at risk. Likewise, what happens if he or she should come across an incident that needs a police officer but he is either on his way to or from work? Do they intervene and try to affect an arrest? I know that off duty officers do often intervene and it is a common complaint from a number of officer’s partners that they are never off duty. By being in uniform they would feel obliged to intervene.
I know that the justice system now operates because of the good will of all those involved, police officers working massive shifts, solicitors turning out 24 hours a day and often doing work for no payment as legal aid is not available. Court clerks and unpaid magistrates sitting through lunch and even overnight to cover the cases. This is one step too far.
I am not an apologist for the police, but I know they do a job that many of us simply would not want. There are good police officers and there are bad police officers but all are committed to doing a job where they really do put themselves at risk. I may not agree with them all the time and may think that very often they are barking up the wrong tree, but on this point I agree with them totally.
My advice to any think tank is to do the job you are commenting on for a decent period, then and only then are you qualified to make a suggestion as ridiculous as this one.
A Feral Underclass
Kenneth Clarke crops up again in this blog following his comments on the causes of the recent riots and looting in August this year. He stated in a piece for the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/sep/05/kenneth-clarke-riots-penal-system that the cause of the riots showed an urgent need for reform to stop reoffending among “a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism”. Hardly words that will help to bring those responsible back into mainstream society.
He went on to say that;
“It’s not yet been widely recognised, but the hardcore of the rioters were in fact known criminals. Close to three-quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction. That is the legacy of a broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful.”
As an assertion of fact it is a bold one, but sadly it is likely to be proven wrong. It may well be the case that of the 1700+ offenders arrested and brought before the courts to date 75% have previous convictions. In a period of four or five days I am fairly certain that there were more than 1700 persons on the street committing offences. Those that have been caught and put before the court so far have, were I am sure caught because the police knew of them before. Officers recognise faces because they have dealt with them in the past, that’s why they knew where they lived and were able to arrest them days after the incidents. There remains an equally large number of offenders that the police do not know, and have yet to find. To say that 75% of rioters were known criminals is both inaccurate and misleading at this stage in the game.
Mr Clarke has an agenda which was made clear well before the riots, that he wants to move away from prison as a way of punishing and rehabilitating offenders. Payment by results is at the core. Various bodies are to be paid money to rehabilitate offenders, they get paid if the individual does not commit further offences. Some might think that the riots were rather well-timed.