Crime reforms or window dressing ?

The government has announced that there will be new legislation designed to cut “crime and build safer communities”.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is intended to give the police “the powers and tools they need to protect themselves and the public”.

The measures include:

Positions of trust – existing legislation will be widened to include sports coaches and religious leaders with occupations such as doctors and teachers. As adults in a position of trust, they will be prohibited from sexual relationships with young people under 18.

Knife crime – new laws are proposed to make it easier to stop and search those suspected of carrying a knife or blade.

Unauthorised encampments – police will be able to tackle unauthorised encampments, and to manage protests safely if they prevent people from going about daily life or threaten public order.

Officer support – the support offered to both serving and retired police officers, will be enshrined in a “Police Covenant”. The maximum sentence for assaults on police or emergency workers will also be increased from 12 months to two years.

Sentencing reforms – whole life orders are to be introduced for those who murder children, and judges will be able to impose these sentences on offenders aged between 18 and 20 in exceptional cases. At the moment, such a sentence is not available for that age range. An example of an “exceptional case” is said to be one of terrorism causing mass loss of life.

New starting points for sentence for children who commit murder will be introduced. These start points will be based on age and the seriousness of the offence. The ability of an adult who murders as a child to have the minimum term reviewed will also be reduced.

The exceptional reasons for not imposing a minimum term (in cases such as a third strike burglary and second strike knife possession) will be reduced to make it less likely for a court to depart from the minimum sentence.

Further reforms – life sentences will be introduced for drivers who cause death, and automatic release at the halfway point will be abolished for serious violent and sexual offenders. Community sentences will be stricter and aimed at targeting the underlying causes of crime. The length of time a person can be on curfew will be increased to 2 years, and there will be greater use of location monitoring and daily curfews for youths.

Also proposed are increased penalties for those convicted of vandalising memorials (from 3 months to 10 years) and the imposition of a legal duty on criminal justice agencies and local authorities to share data and intelligence to tackle serious violence.

The announcement stated that funding would be increased to reduce court delays and increase the speed in which cases are dealt with, further police officers will be recruited, and extra prison places funded.

On a positive note, the time period in which people have to declare a conviction would be reduced for non-violent, sexual or terrorist offences.

It is clear that the government aims to impose a harsher regime for the sentencing of specific offences, and they expect an increase in the prison population. It remains to be seen whether all of the proposals will come into effect and to what extent.

The Criminal Bar Association has issued this response on hearing of the content of the new legislation:

“The new Bill may talk about equipping the police with the powers and tools needed to protect the public, but charges need to be brought in the first place for the myriad of serious crime reported to the police each week which fail to result in any form of prosecution through the courts. In order to restore confidence in the criminal justice system we need to bring overall levels of charging up from the record low of just 7%, more than half the rate of five years ago.

There is a unacceptable rise in criminal cases that fall apart completely after criminal allegations are made to police, pre charge, due in large part to end-to-end delays across the justice system as a result of underfunding from policing to court availability.

Of all police-reported rape crime allegations, 42.2% collapse due to “evidential difficulties as victim does not support action” as at 30 September 2020, while 45.5% of violence to the person police-reported crimes fall apart for the same reason, according to latest Home Office data.

If criminal cases are kept out of court because the criminal justice system has been deprived of the resources it needs to deal with them, that will rock public trust and risk people taking matters into their own hands. We will end up with a two tier justice system.”

We will be monitoring developments as this legislation makes its journey through parliament.

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