London: With Parliament set to resume on 6 January, it seems that criminal justice will a close runner up to Brexit in Bills debated. The Queen’s speech in December committed the Government to establishing a Royal Commission to review the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process; the Conservative Manifesto had nearly four pages dedicated to cutting crime.

The Government have 7/8 Bills planned, including extending sentences for violent and sexual offenders and improving accountability in the parole system, preventing foreign national offenders from entering UK and increasing penalties to stop them returning. Cyber-crime, online crime, organised crime and terrorism will all have new dedicated tools and resources within the police force. All the above will require significant investment, highlighted in the November 2019 Longford Lecture given by Lord Ian Blair, former Commissioner of Metropolitan Police and a crossbencher in the House of Lords, Blair attributed his 2008 resignation to “lack of support” from Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London at that time.

Speaking about England and Wales, Blair said he was alarmed at the pattern of decline in British courts, prisons, prosecution and probation services, he recommended a holistic review crossing departmental boundaries- the last Royal Commission on the Police review was in 1962.Blair unstintingly blames the Conservatives for the Ministry of Justice, Crime Prosecution Service and Police budget cuts since 2010.Blair calculated that the current Commissioner Cressida Dick’s budget, is 39% less in real terms than his, eleven years after he left the office.

Blair cited a 2019 report by Peter Clarke, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and a former head of counterterrorism at the Met, which found that drugs and violent/bullying behaviours in prisons have been underestimated, and there are staff shortages. This reporter found a report also by Peter Clarke about HMP Hewell in Worcestershire, his assessment was “The poor living conditions were compounded by the fact that the establishment was failing in its core purpose as an open prison. This report sets out in detail how a wide range of weaknesses and failings meant that it was not properly preparing prisoners for their release. This was particularly concerning as a significant number of prisoners were assessed as presenting a high risk of harm.” This and necessary reforms in probation procedures resonate with the early release of Usman Khan, perpetrator of the two murders on London Bridge before Christmas.

Blair praises the work of Professor Lawrence Sherman at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, whose premise is that all crimes are not created equal, counting them as if they are fosters distortion of risk assessments, resource allocation, and accountability. Sherman has designed the Cambridge Harm Index, a weighted index to measure and classify each crime type according to how harmful it is, relative to all other crimes. Blair is critical that this project did not receive enough Government funding.

Blair quotes Sir Tom Winsor the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, who has said UK is paying for its failure to prevent crime ‘you can’t have 100 per cent of whatever it is you want for 60 or 70 per cent of its efficient cost.’ Blair’s talk was delivered during the parliamentary purdah before the December general election and his apparently partisan take might encourage support from the opposition for more funding for the criminal justice system when Bills come to the House of Commons for debate. Blair’s views are supported by a Parliamentary Justice Committee report dated October 2019 that claims the prison estate is in an appalling state of disrepair, with violence and self-harm at record highs and there is little sign of improvement.

According to criminal justice statistics 1.58 million individuals were dealt with by the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales in the latest year (June 2018-2019),a fall of 2% and the lowest since records began. Out of 1.37 million defendants prosecuted, convictions remained stable at 87%, defendants remanded on bail by the police decreased by 10% since the year ending June 2018,the numbers sentenced to immediate custody were the lowest since 2009, and the average custodial sentence length has steadily increased to 20.3 months for indictable offences and was 17.4 months overall (the highest in the decade).

The 2017 ‘10 Prisons Project’, that aimed to tackle the most persistent and urgent problems facing 10 of the UK’s most challenging prisons, had successful results: The rate of assaults per 1,000 prisoners in the 10 prisons dropped by 16%, from 42.9 in June/August 2018 to 36.1 in April/June 2019; and the percentage of positive results from random mandatory drug tests dropped between August 2018 and March 2019.  The challenge for the 2020 Government will be planning how to fund the implementation of these results across the entire prison estate.

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