February - 2003
Vol# 19 - Issue# 70
Radical Changes in British Justice Policy in 2002
-L. Craig Parker (Special to CJI)
On July 17, 2002, The Guardian, London’s venerable newspaper proclaimed that the new criminal justice proposals advanced by the current government’s Labor Party, and incorporated in their major crime policy document, the White Paper, represented the “biggest overhaul for more than 30 years in the way police, courts, and prisons work” (Travis, 2002). Under Britain’s parliamentary system, the current Labor Party’s proposals are destined to become law within a year or so, albeit in modified form, as the governing Labor Party will dictate the legislative outcome with its parliamentary majority.
This article is an analysis of these proposals and a report on crime trends in Britain. In addition, this article explores new developments in community-based corrections and the probation field. This project is a result of study in London during July 2002. It draws on interviews with a variety of probation officials, law enforcement officers, academic researchers, planners and professional administrators at the Home Office. Various reports and documents were collected in London as part of the study and supplement the on-site interviews and visits to agencies.
The Government’s Proposals
The Labor Party’s far reaching proposals provoked an immediate outcry from a variety of critics, including some within the legal establishment. First, what are some of the key proposals and, second, which proposals are creating the greatest controversy and for what reasons?
One key proposal involves the Home Office’s intention to scrap the historic “double jeopardy” rule that prevents people from being tried twice for the same crime. However, it is being offered with some major restrictions. An earlier Law Commission study had narrowly stated that the double jeopardy rule should be removed in the case of murder. The White Paper had taken a broader approach. Reinvestigation of a case would have to be approved by the Director of Public Prosecutions and a decision to quash an acquittal and order a retrial should be taken by the Court of Appeal. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, commented that “with the development of DNA and forensic science it would be entirely wrong to rule out evidence that shows conclusively that a person had committed a crime” (Burrell, 2002).
Another proposal would allow hearsay evidence to be admissible in court. The White Paper stated that this rule was “ripe for change” noting that “if there is good reason for the original maker not to be able to give evidence personally (for example, through illness or death, or where records have been properly compiled by business), then the evidence should automatically go in, rather than its admissibility be judged.”
Third, jurors would be informed of a suspect’s prior convictions and acquittals. The White Paper provides broad authority for judges to allow juries to hear details of the offender’s previous history if it appears relevant to the case, but keeping in mind the possible prejudicial impact of such information.
Fourth, another radical reform would allow bench trials, or trials by judges, without juries. Judges would be allowed to sit alone in “serious and complex fraud trials” and in some organized crime cases (Burrell, 2002). Furthermore, a judge could dismiss a jury if the jurist felt it had been intimidated. Also, defendants could opt for judge-only trials.
Fifth, the proposals include the rule that the courts be allowed to protect the public from dangerous violent and sexual offenders by extending their sentences in custody until “their risks appear manageable in the community.”
Sixth, in a shift in sentencing philosophy, sentencing guidelines would be tailored to the punishment of the offender not just the crime itself (Hogge, 2002).
Seventh, the court could fire defense lawyers who employed delaying tactics.
Eighth, police will be given powers to impose curfews and other bail conditions on suspects for whom they have insuffici