What is wrong with the Criminal Justice System? Second of a Series

by Brian Risman, Publisher, www the law journal co uk - April 18, 2002

Refer back to Article 1 of the Series

Why are we surprised when politicians act like politicians?

Our politicians approach a problem with politically opportunistic aims. Why canít the politicians develop a reasoned strategy to deal with the growing crisis of street crime?

For example, Home Secretary David Blunkett plans to hold on remand persistent young offenders while they await their trial. Otherwise, these young punks will consider the system to be weak. After all, there is hardly a deterrent if you commit a crime, and then return to the streets the next day, pending the meaningless 'trial' months hence.

Mr. Blunkett's announcement, appropriately at a conference on youth crime, received wide play in the press. Good - the Home Secretary is being tough on the rowdies!

Mr. Blunkett also expanded classes for parents of difficult youths, even youths who have not yet committed a crime, but are prime candidates for the future. Again, the Home Secretary received great coverage.

It is good to hear that the Home Secretary is taking action as part of the Blair government's initiative against crime (see this journal's article Blair government's initiative against street crime).

However, do these initiatives help to solve the problem, or act simply as great publicity? I would tend to think the latter. I would be more convinced if a coherent, reasoned strategy was developed, rather than great press copy.

More politics! Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, has stated that he intends to double the sentencing power of magistrates in order to move thousands of cases out of the onerous and expensive jury system. The obvious impact is that the right to trial will be compromised in the cause of efficiency. The concern, of course, as per my comments in the first article of this series, is that such a move would result in the conviction of the innocent, since an overloaded JP is in no position to discern the truth. Worse, that overloaded JP could easily be manipulated into acquittals of the guilty. I am not reflecting on magistrates, who are quite capable. However, I hear of no plans to help the magistrates cope with this proposed increased (and very complex) load.

It is no surprise that both the Bar and the Law Society are preparing for battle against Lord Irvine's proposal restricting the right to trial. The Lord Chancellor should remember other Ministers who failed in the same quest.

I come back to the title of the series - what is wrong with the Criminal Justice System? In the two incidents noted above, there is plenty of politics, politics and more politics. Mr. Blunkett's measures will not work. Remanding youth will stop their bragging about getting back on the street the next day, but it doesn't stop their young life of crime. Parenting classes fail to deal with the issues at hand. The parents may or may not be part of the problem, but the youth is the issue that must be addressed. Lord Irvine, on the other hand, threatens to paralyse the Criminal Justice System by shifting cases requiring juries onto magistrates.

Can the problems of the Criminal Justice System be solved, or at least mitigated? Yes. Can the problems be solved with politically and publicity-motivated actions that do nothing to solve the main problem, namely the criminal element ruining the quality of life of much of the populace? No.

Politics, politics, politics. How about solutions, solutions, solutions?

Brian Risman