Labour shouldn’t play politics with criminal justice
Photo credit: stevec77
May 1, 2013 // By: Stephen Whitehead
Yvette Cooper’s attempt this week to outflank the Conservative party on the use of community resolutions demonstrates the dangers of playing politics with complex issues. But it also raises some important questions about the reason that we arrest and then prosecute people who commit crimes.
Community resolutions are a form of restorative justice – a way of dealing with minor offending by bringing together the perpetrator and victim to communicate, agreeing how to deal with the offence and its consequences. Restorative justice is increasingly popular thanks to a growing body of evidence which suggests that, used appropriately, it can improve victim satisfaction and reduce reoffending.
However, alarm bells were sounded this week when figures uncovered by the Labour Party suggested that the number of violent crimes receiving Community Resolutions has risen one and a half times between 2009 and 2012. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, was quick to point to this as evidence that these resolutions are being used inappropriately.
However, rising numbers alone is not in itself evidence of abuse. When deciding whether a case warrants prosecution, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service must weigh the considerable time, money and effort involved in a prosecution to the severity of the offense and the danger posed by the offender.
Where little harm has been done, and the likelihood of reoffending is low, the benefits achieved by a prosecution can be minimal, and the harm done by a lifetime of carrying a criminal record can itself be a disproportionate punishment. Restorative justice treats an offense as being a dispute between the victim and the offender and attempts to resolve it on that basis, rather than invoking the power, and expense of the court system.
When facing major reductions in the number of front-line officers, it is hardly surprising that police forces are looking at alternatives to having them spend hours preparing a case and then a half-day in court to give evidence, for little tangible benefit either to victim or community.
Of course, there are drawbacks to the rapidly falling number of cases which go before the courts – restorative justice is just one of many out of court disposals which have seen their usage rocket. Courts have a role to play in protecting the falsely accused, ensuring that punishment is meted out consistently and protecting the public are protected from dangerous offenders. But the question of which cases deserve to be in front of the court is a complex one, and little light is shed on it by ministers (shadow or otherwise) bearing statistics.
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