Give mayors power over local justice
Our justice system works better without Whitehall meddling
In the past decade crime has fallen and the public feel safer, yet all is not well with our justice system. With rising delays and many more lengthy and expensive trials, victims bemoan how this cumbersome, impersonal system treats them.
Our violent, drug-ridden prisons are full to capacity, but courts keep using custody because magistrates have little faith in community sentences. Repeat offenders go in and out of the courts and jails at huge cost to taxpayers.
With public finances tight, we need a fundamental reappraisal of how the system operates.
The problems are structural, not cultural. Our justice system is highly centralised compared with Germany or Canada, yet is no cheaper. National agencies struggle to innovate and digital “transformation” is always years away. Top-down direction cannot fix these problems, which is why a report by the GovernUp think tank this week suggests a remedy: justice devolution.
To tackle high reoffending rates we need a shift in power to the local level. This is where the solutions will be found to cut costs and improve services — not in Whitehall. If we devolved power to local bodies such as elected mayors or police and crime commissioners (PCCs), they would shift investment to prevention, rather than just manage failure.
As a first step the government should give local areas responsibility for youth justice, as the Taylor review recommends, and scrap the Youth Justice Board. Then PCCs and mayors should get new powers to pilot specialist courts, set fine rates and oversee probation and the crown prosecution service (CPS).
Local accountability should apply everywhere and to all parts of the system — not just to the police, or only in cities with elected mayors. And there should be no more splendid isolation for the CPS. Our prosecutors should respond to local priorities — just like the police — and these might vary across the country, just as crime rates do. Responsiveness and accountability matter more than consistency.
One day the elected mayor of somewhere like Manchester might be responsible not just for the police, but for the whole criminal justice system in their own city, and would have to answer for it — a far-fetched concept only for those in Whitehall who still cling on to control.
Rt Hon Nick Herbert CBE MP, is Co-Chair of GovernUp and former Minister for Policing & Criminal Justice
This article was published by The Times on 16 December 2016.