by Sally Gimson
Jenny Chapman and Jacqui Smith recognize, in their contribution, Cutting Crime and Building Confidence, in The Purple Book Cutting Crime and Building Confidence that victims need far greater power within the criminal justice system.
Understanding what it was like to be affected by crime helped make criminal justice a Labour issue. It was one of the big achievements of our 13 years in power.
As Chapman and Smith point out, Labour recognised that crime was a social problem which affects the poorest most. “Those,” they argue, “with the least clout and power suffer most from crime and antisocial behaviour”.
And it was these issues that Labour concentrated on, introducing anti-social behaviour orders and putting police officers back on the streets with a remit to report back to local people.
Neighbourhood policing teams were introduced in every area of the country and a policing pledge, now scrapped by the Tory-led government, laid down minimum standards such as targets for responses to 999 calls and monthly “beat meetings”.
Labour home and justice secretaries also boosted victims’ rights, introducing a victims’ code and creating the post of victims commissioner, held by Louise Casey.
Chapman and Smith outline these achievements and the fall in crime which happened as a result.
But now they say Labour must go further. And that existing Labour councils can lead the way by getting local communities more involved in local policing.
They highlight initiatives like the community crime fighter programme, which has trained more than 4,000 community activists to challenge criminal justice agencies.
They call for victims to have the legally enforceable right to be given support, information and a say within the system. They even suggest we should “explore the possibility of allowing victims the right to provide a recommendation, and whether or not this should be binding, on the length or type of sentence”.
The further emphasis on victims’ rights is admirable and part and parcel of accountability, but the authors of the chapter are not clear on how these rights might be achieved and enforced.
That is the rub. Helping communities to work with the police to police themselves is good and we need to do it more. People only tend to come together when they are under threat, so the expectation of regular involvement in policing by anyone but the same old activists might be unrealistic.
But giving enforceable rights to individual victims is challenging to the whole system. It means imagining something very radical, a criminal justice service designed around the needs of victims of crime.
It is not a zero sum game. If you have more rights for victims, it doesn’t mean fewer rights for defendants. It may mean a more uncomfortable life for the police, the courts, lawyers, but it need not change defendants’ rights.
If the police were really accountable to individuals, then every person who reported a crime would have an officer assigned to them. That officer would have a duty to keep them informed of what was happening in their case, answer their questions and help the solve the crime.
Avon and Somerset police are trying something a bit like this through their website TrackMyCrime. It’s not the whole answer, but it is a start. Once police are made to engage with victims of crime and serve their needs, maybe they, and the victim, will think about crime differently.
Courts too could be designed around victims’ and witnesses’ needs. They would not have to turn up at great personal inconvenience, as they so often do now, to find that the trial was postponed or cancelled.
Victims and witnesses could be prioritised, treated specially – dates for trials could work around their schedules, not those of lawyers. Time in the court could be “golden time”, as it is in some operating theatres, and only used for trials, with legal arguments happening at different times. It wouldn’t stop all cancelled trials, but it might mean more efficient uses of courts. At the moment the needs of victims and witnesses are barely thought about.
Court proceedings could be published on the internet in full, so that the public could look trials up. It is impossible today to know what is going on in a criminal court without being there in person and local reporting of trials has all but died out.
Furthermore magistrates and judges could write to victims and witnesses and tell them the outcome of a case they were involved in. And victim personal statements could be made the norm in every case, rather than haphazardly used as they are now.
If the criminal justice system is to serve victims of crime, then it must be challenged to consider their needs far more than it does now. Jenny Chapman and Jacqui Smith should be praised for calling for rights, but we need to make sure those rights help us all re-imagine the criminal justice system.
Sally Gimson is a councillor in Camden.