Victim’s justice: a pointless charade
The proposed ‘community remedy’ is another desperate attempt by politicians and police to appear accountable.
This year, for the first time since I was a young child, I became a victim of crime. Our ground-floor flat in a busy area of south London was burgled. It was a pain. But far more shocking than the fact of the burglary itself – my flatmate and I began the year being so dilatory with regards to our personal security, we kind of had it coming – was the extent to which the police were desperate to prove that something was being done to try to catch the perpetrators.
I received calls most days updating me on the investigation. Adolescent trainee officers – known as Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) – were sent to my flat on two occasions to make recommendations on how to improve security at my (rented) accommodation. They even asked me how I ‘felt’ about having been burgled.
Which is why I balked when the UK home secretary Theresa May told the Conservative party conference in October that communities were to have a greater say in how those accused of anti-social behaviour would be punished. Last week, the Home Office launched a consultation on the concept of a new, out of court ‘community remedy’, which would allow complainants to choose from a ‘menu’ of community punishments for those engaged in low-level offending, like criminal damage or minor incidents of disorder. The remedy would be available for offences which would usually be dealt with by way of a caution (basically a telling off that goes on your criminal record). May situated the announcement as part of the Lib-Con coalition’s commitment to ‘giving the victim back their voice’.
Of course, there is no evidence that the ‘communities’ May refers to have any interest in choosing how low-level offenders are dealt with by the police. There is, in fact, strong evidence that the public would rather policemen just get on with their job, rather than constantly seeking validation through delegating out their powers to the public. The embarrassingly low turnout earlier this year for police-commissioner elections should have been a strong indication that, while people would like to get their stuff back when it is stolen, they are less interested in choosing which ex detective or washed-out politician gets to set crime-prevention policy in their local area. Similarly, I can imagine little worse than being asked to decide whether the graffiti ‘artist’ who daubs nonsense on my local bus shelter should be forced to clean it off or attend compulsory anger-management classes. I simply don’t care.
The justice system is supposed to exercise the will of the public through the courtroom. But that is not to say that those who are charged with exercising judgement within that system – magistrates, police chiefs, et al – should simply delegate decision-making in the hope of boosting public confidence. In our current system, I would hope that officers dealing with low-level offenders would have the confidence to make the right decision with regards to the disposal of a case. After all, that’s their job. With low-level offences, this usually means deciding between a slap on the wrist and a day in court. These are not the kinds of decisions that require the democratic will of the populace. They require personal judgement and common sense.
Of course, the introduction of new community remedies is not motivated by increasing the role of the public in the justice system. Instead, it is about furthering the trend towards ‘victim-centred justice’ that began under New Labour. Over the past 15 years, the coalition and its predecessors have introduced reams of reforms undermining the rights of defendants for the sake of giving a ‘voice’ to victims of crime. The anonymous ‘victim’, the ever-present vulnerable heart of criminal proceedings, has been used as a justification for repealing the double-jeopardy rule and allowing witnesses to remain anonymous, as well as for introducing hundreds of new victim-centred offences. For example, the public-order offence of harassment and the new offence of stalking both judge criminal guilt on the basis of how a complainant felt about a defendant’s behaviour. Giving a voice to victims of crime has been the driving force behind some of the most draconian legal reforms of recent decades. Now, with these new community remedies, it is being wheeled out with a different aim: to remedy a deep crisis of authority within the police force through artificially making its processes appear more democratic.
Rather than constantly seeking to engage the public, through allowing it to make decisions it has no interest in making, the police should really just get on with being the objective evidence-gatherers that they purport to be. I don’t want to be asked by a new police recruit how I feel about being burgled, nor do I want to decide how the perpetrators are dealt with if they are ever caught. I want these decisions to be made by those who are supposed to know what they are talking about. Perhaps one day, communities will feel confident in genuinely deciding for themselves how they deal with ‘anti-social behaviour’, without any recourse to the courts or the police whatsoever. This really would be better for everyone. But until that day, I have no interest in telling the police how to make their decisions.
In fact, the prospect of more visits by the recent graduates of the Police Academy has motivated me to ask my landlord for motion-censored lighting to be fitted to the side of our building. After all, with all those young, opportunistic PCSOs wondering the street with so little to do, you really can never be too careful.
Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.
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