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Criminal Justice Bill  

CRIMINAL JUSTICE BILL

In addition to the Sentencing Bill and the Victims and Prisoners Bill, the Criminal Justice Bill is one of three pieces of legislation relating to criminal justice announced in the King’s Speech. Given by King Charles on 7th November 2023 as part of an annual tradition marking the start of a new parliamentary year, the speech outlines the government’s priorities for the year ahead. This year, there are three clear objectives: growing the economy, strengthening society and crime reduction.  

While the Victims and Prisoners Bill is nearing the final stages of its journey through Parliament (you can read about our current campaigning efforts to insert amendments to the bill regarding restorative justice provision), the Sentencing and Criminal Justice Bills are still being debated in the House of Commons.  

Having recently passed its second hearing, the Criminal Justice Bill is currently at Committee stage in the House of Commons. This involves a line-by-line examination of its contents and consideration of potential amendments.

 

The Criminal Justice Bill has three key aims: 

      • To enhance the powers available to the police and others to “cut crime and anti-social behaviour.”  
      • To introduce tougher sentencing  and supervision of sexual and violent criminals.  
      • To ensure that police officers “adhere to the highest standards of integrity and professionalism.”

CONTENT TO THE BILL

There are many different proposals within the Bill’s three main goals, many of which are focused on powers of the police to address specific types of crime, as well as certain broader issues such as anti-social behaviour.

Here are some key takeaways: 

      • ‘Clamping down’ on knife crime, which includes a new power to confiscate bladed articles found on private property, and the introduction of a new criminal offence of possessing a knife or other bladed article with the intent to cause harm.
      • Tougher action on drugs, meaning that police will now have extended powers to drug test more suspects on arrest.
      • Increasing prison capacity by transferring any prisoner detained in English and Welsh prisons to a foreign jurisdiction while retaining responsibility for the enforcement of this sentence. This can be understood as effectively “renting” prison space from abroad.
      • Tackling anti-social behaviour, a broad aim which involves the policing of activities which may “have a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality”.
      • Addressing violence against women and girls, specifically the criminalisation of “intimate images,” building on the Online Safety Act of 2023.
      • New powers to address economic crime, meaning that law enforcement agencies will be vested with extended powers to tackle fraud and other economic crimes. For example, they will be allowed to suspend domain names and IP addresses used for fraudulent purposes.
      • Enhanced police powers to tackle organised crime. Increased powers include the prohibition of articles used in serious crime (e.g. pill presses or signal jammers). Possession of a SIM farm (a system which uses a large number of SIM cards to illegally send out thousands of scam texts) without lawful authority will also be made illegal.

CRITICISM TO THE BILL

A leading criticism of the Bill, outlined in a statement by the charity Justice, is that it inappropriately treats legislation as a “panacea for a range of socio-economic issues,” rather than addressing their underlying causes.  

One of the proposed measures is to replace the Vagrancy Act 1824 by criminalising organised begging and introducing “move on powers” as well as new civil notices to prevent rough sleeping. The Bill proposes to criminalise “nuisance begging” and “nuisance rough sleeping.” Charities such as Homeless Link have recommended the removal of these sections, arguing that sufficient legislation is already in place to address aggressive begging and rough sleeping where it may threaten others.  

The Bill also proposes to increase prison capacity. Given the current capacity crisis in prisons in England and Wales which has brought the system “close to breaking point,” it is unsurprising that this is being addressed in new legislation. However, the government plans to deal with this by transferring certain prisoners to rented prisons overseas, in addition to building 20,000 new prison spots in England and Wales. Sending prisoners abroad obviously raises moral, practical and ethical concerns: charities including Prisoners Abroad have spoken out against the proposals, emphasising increased potential for isolation and trauma, as well as exclusion from family contact and rehabilitation programmes. Justice argues that this separation may in fact compromise public safety, on the basis that reintegration for ex-offender is likely to be more complicated.  

One of the most criticised sections of the Bill is the introduction of a statutory power requiring individuals facing a life sentence to attend sentence hearings. A briefing by the Prison Reform Trust explains that in fact, this provision only serves to “clarify relevant existing law and reinforce expectations that a defendant ought to attend a hearing, rather than the creation of any new additional powers.” However, the inclusion of this new provision may trigger two unintended consequences: first, it may damage confidence in the justice system by creating an unrealistic expectation that prisoners must be forced to attend hearings. Second, it might produce unintended knock-on effects about the use of force in prisons, particularly as the existing use of force policy is currently under review.  

THE ROLE OF RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

Overall, many of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill seek to reinforce existing measures and strengthen police power, rather than introducing any dramatic new measures. However, stronger police powers and more prison places are not necessarily the most effective or sustainable answer to key issues raised in the Bill.

Restorative justice can play a significant role in fostering alternative justice and innovative policing methods. First, community policing may be a valuable tool in the regulation of anti-social behaviour. The concept of community policing is based on collaboration between police and community organisations, working together to develop strategies to counter crime and disorder problems. Community policing is less of a governing body than the traditional police force. Instead, it encourages self-policing, self-help and self-organisation among community residents. Its ethos draws from restorative justice principles which consider crime not as a series of individual events, but rather as a product of the community it comes from.

Ultimately, it aims to “deliver informal social regulation in a way that promotes cohesion.” For example, in order to address anti-social behaviour, community policing aligned with RJ principles might involve meetings, conferences and dialogue to discuss the impacts of certain actions.

Second, we might apply the potential of restorative justice to the current prison capacity crisis. The prison population crisis has far-reaching impacts: prisons are becoming less safe, and prison officers are suffering the effects of overcrowding and increased violence. Instead of turning automatically to prison sentences in response to (particularly minor) crimes, we might think about freeing up prison space by considering alternative ways of delivering justice.

The government’s plan to build 20,000 new prison places is significantly behind schedule, and their proposal is to rent foreign prison places is problematic on a number of ethical and logistical grounds. However, as explained in a comprehensive briefing by Clinks, there are alternatives, including diversion schemes, sentencing reforms, and community sentences options and release on temporary licence.

Various studies have indicated that short jail terms fail to prevent reoffending, and that community-based sentencing can be a much more effective alternative, avoiding added strain on the prison system. Hasty resort to punitive justice may not be benefiting communities as it claims to. Restorative justice approaches offer a way to restore a sense of balance in a community, by involving all the stakeholders in a crime. Rather than limit the consequences of crime to ‘serving time,’ it looks at the crime more holistically, examining the causes and impacts of the crime to a degree that the criminal justice system is unable to.

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