This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Should sentencing be more evidence based?

The criminal justice system is a complex system which means it is most difficult (perhaps impossible) to predict the outcomes of any decisions with any real accuracy. A Minister for Justice falls asleep at a cricket game in the Amazon rainforest and UK prison population rises to another peak…

But that said, I think that all attempts must be made to introduce measures and indicators to assist in the assessment of whether decision X is better than decision Y. And then next time, a better decision is made. (How indicators became targets which became micro-management is another story that I don’t plan on going into here...) So if we accept the premise that such indicators and measures are helpful in determining better ways of administering justice, the question then becomes where might such measures be usefully applied?

There are probably many places, but I would argue for one critical place: sentencing.

Every time a magistrate or a judge delivers a sentence, there is a purpose underneath. The purposes might be variable and multiple ranging from punishment to rehabilitation or through to acting as a warning to others. But these purposes are never tested. To my knowledge (and again happy to be told otherwise) there is no feedback mechanism whereby judges or magistrates get any insight into whether the purposes underlying their sentencing decisions have been fulfilled or not. Robber Joe is sentenced to 10 years but the Crown Court Judge never gets to hear anything more about Joe unless he happens to come up before the same Judge again a few years hence.

Put simply: sentencing is not evidence based.

I once put this argument to a High Court Judge at a Restorative Justice seminar and he said that of course sentencing is evidence based… criminal evidence based. I explained a little more what I meant and he looked at me somewhat quizzically.

So for me the question now is whether the new PCCs, as new kids on the block, might have the influence and opportunity to raise such issues and maybe seek a change.

Should sentencing be more open to scientific interrogation? Should those who make sentencing decisions have more feedback on the effects of those decisions?

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