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Dale Bassett: Robocop justice

Reform Dale Bassett is New Media Politics Executive for Reform.

Centralised and technocratic – the shift to “Robocop justice” occurring in Britain today is the consequence of a substantial change in people’s response to crime. Citizens have become “passive bystanders”, happy to abdicate personal responsibility for criminal justice in favour of an ever-increasing role for monolithic institutions, ill-equipped to deal efficiently with crime.

Reform’s new report, published today, finds that the public who demand that “something must be done” about growing violent crime and anti-social behaviour are uninformed about crime and unlikely to participate in maintaining justice. People want to be able to blame the system, and in an attempt to retain control and appear to be tackling the problem, politicians are only too happy to help – we’ve reached the ridiculous situation where the Home Secretary seems to take personal responsibility for every assault that happens on our streets. The resulting centralisation and politicisation of the criminal justice system has made Britain the most expensive country to police in the world, with spending on law and order increasing by nearly 40% in real terms from 1997/8 to 2006/7.

Our report suggests two keys to rectifying this and improving the efficiency of our criminal justice system: decentralisation and information.

With mishaps such as the ongoing lost data scandals demonstrating the failure of the creaking centralised state, politicians from all parties are beginning to realise that a local, decentralised agenda is often the best approach in many areas of public policy. But as ever, there seems to be more lip-service than action. The so-called “colouring book” approach – with detailed targets and parameters dictated from the centre and only minimal local autonomy allowed – will mitigate the impact of decentralisation in the criminal justice system. Effective policing needs different approaches in different local areas – and local commanders know what works. Giving local police forces the freedom to focus on low-level crime and anti-social behaviour is the way to make a real difference to crime on our streets.

Local Justice Commissioners should take responsibility for every step in the criminal justice service, from prevention to probation. These commissioners would coordinate a tailored, local approach to crime between the different agencies and services involved, and would be personally accountable for the costs of keeping law and order. Combined with innovations such as Japanese-style police boxes, and a National Bureau of Investigation to take responsibility for national issues like terrorism, this decentralisation would make a real difference to the quality of policing on our streets.

A lack of information is the single biggest barrier to individuals taking responsibility for law and order – two thirds of Britons would “play a role in tackling or preventing crime” if they felt empowered to do so. Again, politicians have begun to recognise this, and crime mapping has become one of the hot topics in criminal justice at the moment.

But the government needs to go further. Citizens should be informed about what’s going on in their neighbourhood, with a full extension of crime mapping and the publication of detailed, granular information about all aspects of the justice system on a local basis. Televising and publishing details of court proceedings and sentencing would make the public feel that the criminal justice system does yield results. These changes would move power away from the centre and encourage society itself to become the main instrument in maintaining lawfulness.

Six out of ten Britons would be unlikely to challenge a group of 14 year old boys vandalising a bus shelter. Six out of ten Germans would challenge them. We need to rebuild the relationship between the public and the police, shift responsibility back towards the individual and away from centralised institutions, and encourage participation in maintaining justice. Rather than seeing the criminal justice system as a “distant, sealed-off entity”, government needs to encourage people to become a part of it.

Reform’s report The Lawful Society is published today.


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