Durham Constabulary have announced that in April 2015 they will be launching a scalped-up version of a project the West Midlands have already piloted, with a success rate of 75%. Known as the 'Turning Point Plan' by the West Midlands Police, the project sees those whom commit low-level offences (low-level assault, fraud, shoplifting and theft) removed from the typical channel of the criminal justice system (arrest, an appearance at a magistrates court, conviction and a criminal record when found guilty) into a new system.
The 'Turning Point' comes when the police interpose at the point of arrest and allow for the offender to agree to a voluntary plan which sees a contract drawn establishing the offenders compliance to no longer offender, to engage and repay the community, and to engage with those issues which may have surrounded their offending (mental health issues, substance misuse, relationship issues, homelessness and domestic abuse).
Constructed in conjunction with the University of Cambridge this is a very interesting project. Namely because of the crisis of mass imprisonment in the UK (suicide, overcrowding, 24hrs locked behind cell doors, staff shortages etc) where the problem of overcrowding manifests because England and Wales' prison population primarily consists of those whom have committed such low level offences, serving short sentences (3-6 months). These low-level offenders have further contributed to England and Wales' mass imprisonment as a cascade of low-level offences have become imprisonable for the first time, in recent years under the current Coalition government.
If this initiative can avoid adding low-level offenders to a prison service which is is not fit to handle them, and prevents those problems associated with such offenders carrying a criminal conviction (reduced job opportunities which effects offenders becoming reinstated in the economy, impacting resettlement and thus aiding high recidivism (re-offfending) rates (which adds to the prison population as recirculation of short sentence offenders increases on top of existing population, and new offenders in the system); issues of labelling, criminalisation and demonisation of low-level offences etc) we may finally be making progress with low-level offenders.
Short prison sentences have often been noted as a) the plug, which if released, would relieve a huge amount of pressure from within the prison service in England and Wales, and b) a key ingredient when considering how to reform prison, and justice, policy as low-level offenders become part of a cycle of offending, criminal conviction, reoffending, further incarceration (costing time, money and effort on behalf of the police, prison probation service, as well as tax-payers and our communities) which ultimately removes (primarily) young, men from their communities (family, friends, children - and the support they may gain from them), from the labor maker and thus the economy.
However, as much as such solutions are urgently needed and very welcome I am reminded of the problems associated with the ASBO, and its subsequent derivative forms under the current Coalition government. An essay critically examining the Anti-Social Behaviour Agenda, which highlights these issues in more detail, can be seen here: https://www.academia.edu/10018942/The_Anti-Social_Behaviour_Agenda_in_England_and_Wales_a_critical_examination_in_relation_to_youth_custody_detention_and_policy.
This is because when the first two features of such an agreement to prevent further criminal offences are 1) the agreement not to commit a further offence, coupled with: 2) to work in conjunction with services which will aim to address the issues surrounding your offending (mental health issues, homelessness, substance misuse) you are saying the following:
"Whilst we recognise your diminished ability to make appropriate personal choices due to personal circumstances, we wish you to make personal choices about your personal circumstances to reduce your offending".
It is circular. Circular policies result in breaches of those policies, as did ASBO's with a 68% breach rate for children and 52.7% for adults. Breaches result in arrest, court and a criminal conviction: back to where the policy began. The only way to ensure that such a policy is effective is to ensure that all the services which surround it are fully operational and the programmes are effective. Where all individual needs are taken into consideration so that those whom may wish to alter their personal circumstances but need help, information and constant support to do so, can.
What we know is that currently many council-run operations are understaffed and underfunded. Many programmes (e.g. drug addiction) are ineffective and all the way through to probation there are substantial difficulties due to privatisation and cuts. This means ineffectual care and guidance for those whom may wish to change their personal circumstances to reduce their offending.
This policy could prove a substantial beginning for addressing the problem of low-level offending and beneficial for all involved. But it is irresponsible to assume that its implementation alone will finally address a problem which cripples the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
Original article in the Northern Echo: http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/11681660.Offenders_given_chance_to_escape_conviction_as_part_of_Durham_Constabulary_s__groundbreaking__scheme_Checkpoint/?ref=twtrec