The Sunday Times:
Tony Blair is to mount a final assault on Britain’s
civil libertiesthug culture by introducing restrictions that will curb ourpotential yobs’ movements even before wethey have committed an offence.
After attempting to tackle antisocial behaviour, he is proposing to introduce a “violent offender order” (Voo) targeted at those whom police believe are likely to commit violence.
These new “super-Asbos” will be aimed not only at people who have a history of violent behaviour or who have just left prison but also those who may not yet have committed an offence. [my emphasis]
According to a Home Office document outlining the plan, to be published next month,
- the Sunday Times is kindly testing the waters of public opinion, you see -
the measures will ban potential trouble-makers from certain areas or mixing with certain people, alert police when they move house and possibly force them to live in a named hostel, give details of vehicles they own and impose a curfew on them.
In other words, control orders for you and I.
The orders will last for at least two years, with no upper limit. Any breach could lead to up to five years in jail. Ministers believe police will apply for 300 to 450 Voos each year.
The measures will be seen as a last-ditch attempt by Blair to rescue his legacy on law and order before he quits No 10 in the summer. Despite the prime minister’s boast that overall crime has been falling for the past decade, violent crime is rising.
A report out today [1.8Mb PDF - I don't know why the Sunday Times didn't link to it], by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in association with The Sunday Times, reveals that almost half of the offenders caught by police are getting away without a court punishment,
If I understand correctly, the report actually says (page 38) that just over half of offences – not offenders – are “brought to justice”. This is defined by Criminal Statistics as “when the offender has been cautioned, convicted, or had the offence taken into consideration by the court”, and since 2004 also includes “penalty notices for three notifiable disorder offences and formal warnings for the possession of cannabis”.
According to the report, the proportion of convictions as a percentage of offences brought to justice remained fairly stable at 70% until 2004, declining to 60% in 2005, and to 53% by March 2006.
Regardless of this error of fact, in my opinion the thinking in the Sunday Times article is ethically wrong: rather than “getting away with it”, it should read that “half of alleged offenders haven’t been proved guilty in court”.
robberies have risen and murders are up by a third. Street muggings remain stubbornly high.
The Voos are designed to be a “preventative measure”, according to the Home Office paper. “It would mean that, where an individual was known
- note the use of “known” instead of “suspected” -
to be dangerous but had not committed a specific qualifying offence, restrictions could still be placed on their behaviour,” it says.
In other words, “we know John Smith is dangerous, it’s just a matter of time until he does something, so we will punish him for it”.
Like Asbos, the police or probation service would apply for the orders to the civil courts, where the threshold for proof is lower than in a criminal case.
The ‘burden of proof’ in civil proceedings is ‘the balance of probabilities’ as opposed to ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
The document says the process will therefore be much quicker and hearsay evidence will be permitted to obtain an order against a suspect. Any breach of the order would be a criminal offence.
Unlike Asbos, which solely cover antisocial behaviour, Voos would be targeted at thugs who would be placed on the violent and sex offender register, a national database for intelligence on people deemed to be a serious risk to the public.
Ministers are concerned that the Asbo regime has failed to give police and the authorities enough powers to tackle potentially violent offenders.
The paper identifies a series of “risk factors” that could lead to a person being targeted for the new order. These include a person’s formative years and upbringing, “cognitive deficiencies”, “entrenched pro-criminal or antisocial attitudes,” “a history of substance abuse or mental health issues”.
Factors could also include a person’s domestic situation or relationship with their partner or family, as well as more obvious signs such as “possession of paraphernalia related to violent offending (eg, balaclava, baseball bat), or extremist material”.
In other words, you might be forced to live somewhere, movements restricted, prohibited from associating with whomever you please, on the basis that you might commit an offence, possibly depending on hearsay (note that hearsay is not excluded from civil proceedings), and merely on the balance of probabilities (you are deemed more likely than not to be a risk) – rather than beyond reasonable doubt, the criminal standard – and you might have done nothing wrong or do anything wrong.
Clearly there are two important principles being attacked here: the presumption of innocence (or innocent until proved guilty), and no punishment without law (i.e. you shouldn’t be punished for doing something that wasn’t a crime when you did it).
The report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) is in itself an interesting read. Do read the summary (4 pages) and conclusions (2 pages) if you can’t make time to read the entire document (76 pages).
In short, it claims (as reported by the BBC today) that it is difficult to establish what the Government has achieved in this area despite a large financial outlay – proportionately more than any country in the OECD – and 50-odd pieces of law and order legislation.
It questions whether, in some areas, the money has been worth it, and whether in actual fact other responses to crime – such as improvements in security in response to burglaries – are behind lower levels of crime in those specific areas.
This brings me to two pertinent points.
First, is the Government’s focus on continually introducing new law and order legislation (such as this) an appropriate response to crime, or is it time for a change in thinking?
Second, there is a disparity between crimes and convictions and this is called “the justice gap”. You narrow the justice gap by increasing the number of offences “brought to justice” (as defined above), and the Government set itself some not particularly ambitious targets (helpfully quoted in the paper from the CCJS):
Increase the number and proportion of recorded crimes for which an offender is brought to justice (Spending Review 2000)
Improve the delivery of justice by increasing the number of crimes for which an offender is brought to justice to 1.2 million by 2005-2006 (Spending Review 2002)
Improve the delivery of justice by increasing the number of crimes for which an offender is brought to justice to 1.25 million by 2007-2008 (Spending Review 2004)
Bringing 150,000 more offenders to justice a year by 2008, compared to 2003 by 2007-2008 (Home Office Strategic Plan 2004-2008)
According to the report, these targets have “not been met as a result of increases in successful convictions.”
In fact the number of successful convictions has declined, as has the successful convictions as a proportion of the total number of offences brought to justice (the 53% referred to earlier).
It is the contributions made by ‘non-convictions’ – cautions, formal warnings, Penalty Notices for Disorder, and offences “taken into consideration” by the courts – that have allowed the Government to meet its targets.
But, the report says,
the gap between crime measured by the British Crime Survey and convictions for indictable offences remains vast. In 1997 there were two convictions for every 100 estimated crimes. In 2005 there were three convictions for every 100 crimes.
The Government prefers to get rid of the courts from the justice ‘equation’ (clumsy, I know, but it is a Monday), and introduce more expedient ways to bring “offences to justice”.
It is nice to know that the Government is more concerned with expediency rather than traditional notions of justice. But Tony Blair did say that such notions were unsuited to the 21st century.
He has said of crime,
The system itself is the problem. We are trying to fight 21st century crime – ASB, drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime – with 19th century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens.
i.e. such methods are outfashioned, outdated, old.
The whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don’t misunderstand me. That must be the duty of any criminal justice system.
Unfortunately the system is in the way of his unambitious targets. So out the window it goes.
I think the proposals are terrible.
According to BBC News, Lord Falconer said of the proposals,
If there’s evidence that you could commit a violent offence in the future, proper evidence of that proved in a court, then why shouldn’t you be restrained from committing that violent offence?
Quite misleading and just wrong, wrong wrong.