July 13 2024
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We cannot delay any longer- our justice system is at breaking point

We cannot delay any longer- our justice system is at breaking point

Serious recorded crime is rising, victims wait years for their trials and our prisons are squalid, overcrowded and increasingly dangerous. Our justice system is at breaking point. All too aware of these issues are the overworked and burnt out practitioners on the frontline. Calls to turn back the clock and simply reverse spending cuts, without the necessary reform of what we are asking the system to do, ignore how acute the issues are.

Our new report argues that if we want a society with less crime in a time of limited resources, we need a systems shift. A new Government must start by addressing immediate crises in our prisons and in the Crown Court backlog, both of which are pushing the system close to the edge of overloading, and taking resources away from long-term thinking.

On prisons, day zero, where prisons reach capacity, is no longer a distant possibility, but a real prospect. And, because of past failures to tackle the sources of demand on our prisons and inability to build prison places to keep pace, there are no good options left on the table. We cannot build ourselves out of a prisons capacity crisis.

Therefore, we recommend a new Government needs to reset the release point for people serving a sentence of four years of less, from 50% to 40% of their sentence, unless they are assessed as high risk of serious harm to the public. Our calculations indicate this would potentially save thousands of prison beds a year and help the system move out of crisis mode. It is better to take the right decisions now to manage the capacity pressures down safely, in a way that is planned, measured and considered, than in the midst of a panic on the day the last bed is filled.

Once the prisons crisis abates, we can take action on the backlog. The backlog represents a fundamental problem within the criminal justice system and, like the prison capacity crisis, needs to be alleviated by taking immediate action. Our plan calls on the Government to set ambitions to speed up Crown Court cases to pre-pandemic averages by the end of the next Parliament, and introduce a temporary streamlined ‘Crown Court’ process for the least serious not guilty cases. It will also be necessary to consider how to improve the working conditions for all of the legal profession to ensure that progress can be made.

While the prospect of taking emergency action can be daunting, it also provides a moment for hope, and an opportunity to re-think our entire approach to justice. Strategic decision-making in the Ministry of Justice is constantly undermined by the need to survive each week’s crisis. Taking early action to get the system out of crisis mode will enable whoever forms the next Government to take advantage of a new Parliamentary term to deliver the fundamental systems shift we need.

That is why once the urgent fires have been brought under control, our paper turns to how we can build a better system, which can prevent us slipping back into a cycle of crises. This begins with tackling the highest harms. In a world of limited resources and the growth of complex cases, we need to marshal what we do have into providing a specialised and victim focused response to these offences. To do this, we have to ask our criminal justice system to do less in other areas. Yet we believe that by acting smarter, and investing the limited time and money we do have into things that work, there are ways our criminal justice institutions can negotiate this shift down and do less while delivering better outcomes. From prioritising early intervention, to widening access to diversion and out of court resolutions, providing alternatives to remand and rethinking the structure of our courts as well as our current prohibitionist stance on drugs.

Our report is a blueprint for delivering a fairer and more effective justice system that retains the confidence of all our people. Any reform must be done openly and honestly, requiring a clear articulation of the need for it and the risks of acting, and the risks of not acting, and with transparency the impact of these measures over time. But what is clear that we cannot delay any longer.

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