Below are some thoughts on what we can do to improve local justice.
Over the last 18 months, Police and Crime Commissioners have been largely absorbed in the policing aspects of their role. They have a wider remit, however. Parliament granted them responsibilities for community safety, crime reduction and ‘for the enhancement of the delivery of criminal justice in their area.’
That is where many of the greatest opportunities for better justice lie. It is where I would like to focus in the coming years.
We must reduce burdens on not only the police but other criminal justice bodies. Most importantly of all, we must improve justice for the public. That’s what I want to do across the tricky territory of Powys, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthen
Why local justice?
We need to achieve for local justice what we have achieved in local policing over the last five years.
The police have put great effort into tackling low level crime, connecting with communities, visibility and prevention. The result is a public that, broadly, knows its police force and police who know their public. That’s at the heart of local policing.
Local justice has felt the opposite. Shrinking budgets have pulled courts, prosecution and probation services further from local areas.
Courts and magistrates are not well known, or even recognisable, in local areas. That is understandable, but it is not inevitable. Rather than redesigning services for difficult times, we have simply seen them shrink.
Rural areas feel this particularly, since services are already so thinly spread. And rural areas are what Dyfed Powys is all about.
Nobody can afford to keep police stations or courts in every village. Crime is falling. More cases are likely to be settled out of court in future. This will require better scrutiny of what happens away from courts, and more effective sentences within them.
Justice of any sort relies on public confidence. That means it must be seen to be done, it must be swift and it must be fair.
Nothing undermines public confidence more than the suspicion of a stitch up. Out of court disposals – cautions, warnings, even restorative interventions – are a vital tool to tackle petty crime and bad behaviour. But they have a crucial weakness. They can easily be seen as a slap on the wrist, weak or ridiculous. That is in large part because they are administered away from the public eye, usually between an officer and an offender.
We need strong local oversight of justice outside court. Its purpose must be to give the public confidence in decisions made on their behalf. It must also ensure robust accountability to change offenders’ behaviour.
In Dyfed Powys we have established an Out of Court Disposal Scrutiny Panel, to review the use of cautions by officers. We are consulting on the Community Remedy, which will give victims a say in the punishment of offenders. It gives the police a quick punishment, without tainting the offender with a criminal record – the modern equivalent of a clip round the ear.
We are using government funding to explore restorative justice for rural areas. These might involve local justice panels. They might involve meetings between offenders and victims, if the victims want that. They will certainly involve more volunteers because they must be rooted in, and belong to, the people who best understand their own communities.
These must have public confidence. It must have oversight to ensure it is transparent. I hope magistrates can play a greater part here, in an individual if not judicial capacity. They have the experience, the interest and the local knowledge that few others do.
Nothing deters a victim from reporting a crime more than the fear of reliving it. Court processes can grind out a victim’s experience over years. We have transparency but we rarely have speed. Courts and prosecutors must make their own pace in deliberating the evidence but those around them must make their lives easier.
We can, and must, make case files and administration more efficient. We should take a cold, fresh, look and what processes are need and what are not. We must take in the full journey of a case, from reporting to conviction. Digital files in an analogue system are little help to anyone.
Video links between police stations, cells and small, outlying court facilities can help recreate local justice where we cannot afford to rebuild local buildings. They can reduce the time spent by officers travelling to apply for a warrant, or escorting a prisoner for a bail hearing. Courts could be held in multiple use buildings or civic halls.
We have to ensure that courts retain – even enhance – their gravitas and authority. They ought to have a stronger role in monitoring the offenders they sentence. That has implications for how we build our video links, the design of police cells or our town halls.
These ideas are not new. We have made tentative progress on some aspects in Dyfed Powys, but not enough.
Police and Crime Commissioners have unique flexibility to support innovation in local justice. I hope that with our Local Criminal Justice Board, we can act as the body to coordinate the change.
Finally, running through the criminal justice system, from crime to conviction and beyond, is the experience of a person.
Victims of crime experience a very different criminal justice system from those who work in it. Often it is cold, confusing, cumbersome and impersonal. Often it ignores the experience of those who are there through no choice of their own, namely victims.
Justice must always be impartial. It must not create more victims, or miscarriages of justice, by favouring sides before a court has reached its verdict. But it must be much more sensitive to the impact of crime on those who suffer it. Courts must understand the difficulties in giving evidence and hence the impact of their own processes on the outcome of cases.
From April 2015, my office will commission victim services for all but the most serious cases. We will receive funding from the Ministry of Justice and will be responsible for complying with the Victims’ Code. We need a system with a single point of contact that is better able to update a victim throughout their experience. We need consistent support through court and beyond.
That means we need to understand the system we are using. We are changing our OPCC performance work to look across the justice system. I want to share that analysis with partners. I hope we will be able to add data from other organisations and to share our facilities back with them.
The Local Criminal Justice Board offers a platform for much of this activity. These are my ideas, to start the ball rolling. Other’s will have more.
We need first to prioritise our efforts, focussing on the quickest wins. Some changes are administrative, such as those to improve processes. Some are changes to local justice, such as the introduction of restorative practices, the community remedy and our approach to cautions.
I have no doubt that, with imagination, we can use the challenge of our straightened times to come up with new ideas to meet the needs of our rural communities.