Plymouth’s clever court

Photo credit: Joe Gratz via Compfight cc">   Joe Gratz

October 21, 2013 // By: Stephen Whitehead

Too often courts are forced to act like forks in a road, sending defendants to either innocence or guilt, to prison or back into the community with very little in between. Limited resources and lack of referral options can make addressing the root causes of crimes impossible. And in the end, both defendants and society lose out.

But what if courts could open up new, more effective pathways for dealing with the people they try?  As part of our Better Courts project we are exploring examples of projects which help courts address the people who come before them as well as the facts of cases. This week we’re looking at Plymouth Community Advice and Support Service (CASS), an innovative project developed by Pact and run by Rethink Mental Illness which works to help court users access the support they need.

What’s so striking about CASS is the flexibility and pragmatism of the staff who work there. They work hard to make sure that they are led by what the client wants and needs. The service is open to anyone who wants to use it – defendants, but also victims, witnesses, family members, and even people who have come to court specifically to visit CASS. There is no threshold for entry, no need to demonstrate a particular level of need or to live in a particular place. And there are very few limits on the kind of help that the service will provide. While there are some mainstays – namely drug and alcohol treatment referrals, information about community mental health care, practical support with debts or benefits – CASS has helped clients across with a huge range of issues. From helping a young offender find a grant for driving lessons so he could take up the offer as a job as a mechanic, to passing a convicted taxi driver’s car keys to a family member so that his livelihood didn’t get towed away while he was in the cells, CASS staff and volunteers are distinguished by their willingness to help.

CASS works closely with the Community Court, a dedicated court hearing which focuses on exactly the kind of low-level offenders which the services specialises in working with. The community court magistrates are specially trained in engaging directly with offenders and have the option of pausing a trial while the defendant works with CASS to understand and resolve the issues underlying their offending.

In its eight year history, CASS has woven itself into the fabric of the court. Everyone we spoke to during our research, from magistrates to the security guards who man the front desk, told us that they saw the service as an integral part of the court. They valued being able to refer vulnerable or distressed people to the CASS desk for help, and felt that providing this kind of help was important to the court. 

CASS and the community court demonstrate that courts can use their central position to contribute to a more humane and effective criminal justice system. By helping people address the issues which underlie offending, they can contribute to a safer and more just society.

Better Courts is a collaboration between nef and the Centre for Justice Innovation

Issues

Criminal Justice

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