Britain is becoming incapable of policing crime

New Scotland Yard

New Scotland Yard

Mark Rowley surely knew what he was doing when he accused the Crown Prosecution Service of failing victims of crime by “cherry picking” cases to prosecute to boost their stats. Did he have a point?

The beleaguered Met Commissioner has had to shift detectives out of his serious crime command into a professional standards role to hunt out the predators who are destroying the Met’s reputation, and with it the morale of its front line officers.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul has consequences, though, even in London where Mayor Sadiq Khan’s own statistics reveal an eye-watering rise in violent thefts. The Police Inspectorate has now criticised the Met for failing to adequately resource the same serious crime unit hollowed out by 300 staff vacancies. He can’t win, can he?

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the invidious position Rowley has put himself in. Even Max Hill KC, the Chief Prosecutor, applied some emollient in his own response. No, the CPS did not base prosecution decisions on good optics. Yes, the Met is under “extreme” pressure and criticism but there is a commitment to work together to hold criminals to account.

I think this public spat is actually quite healthy in generating debate about the effectiveness of that opaque relationship. I suspect the Commissioner did, too.

The CPS, created to be an independent authority in 1986, is the gateway to court for the police. The principle of separating the police from the prosecutors is a sound one in any liberal democracy, replicated around the world. But while Hill can argue – unconvincingly in my view – that there is no relationship between decisions to charge  and good performance metrics, he cannot rule out the subjective reasoning that influences those decisions.

These are the twin tests applied to every case police officers send to the CPS: is there a realistic prospect of a successful conviction, and is the case in the public interest? While these tests are reinforced by a sophisticated code – on paper anyway – they are still operated by legal bureaucrats far removed from the demands and realities of policing public expectations secondary to but as important as the alleged crime itself. You might argue this is a good thing, justice being blind and all that, but what I hear repeatedly from front line cops is a sense that in too many cases, the evidential requirements are so overengineered, so freighted with risk aversion, that they seem almost designed to stop even deserving cases in their tracks.

Moreover, a refusal to prosecute cases deemed “not in the public interest” is an entirely subjective decision that could be a useful refuge for an organisation with limited resources detached from the impact of unprosecuted offences that corrode community confidence in the whole justice system.

Is it possible that a zeal for operational independence in the CPS and a rigid fealty to neutrality, impartiality and objectivity is inhibiting justice? In many other countries, public prosecutors actually lead criminal investigations from an early stage. By contrast, in the UK we have a “supply chain” approach.

A continental system of collaboration adopted here would bring a Prosecutor into the process far earlier and with greater status than the gatekeeper of an already-sclerotic and overloaded court system. The role of the CPS is to protect the integrity of the justice system, not merely to obtain successful prosecutions. An 82.4pc success rate for this organisation is built on a process where, notionally, the service calculates a greater than 50pc chance of success for cases it considers.

That calculus must inevitably screen out victims who deserved justice and got none. For example, within this healthy performance metric, domestic abuse and rape have poorer and declining conviction rates compared with pre-pandemic performance. Victims of these atrocious crimes will not be encouraged to come forward by poorer chances of success. Many of these cases are in fairness profoundly difficult with “he said, she said” contesting views and little corroborating evidence. Instead of sniping at each other, we need tangible action between police and prosecutors to push up convictions and deter future predators.

It’s grimly ironic that the current inefficiencies in the relationship between cops and prosecutors is probably the one thing that stops the whole criminal justice system from falling apart. Further along our dismal criminal justice conveyor belt, prisons are overflowing crime incubators and stressed-out probation officers are leaving in record numbers. But at the front end, confidence in policing is plummeting. The CPS must help reverse this trend.

Ian Acheson is senior adviser at the Counter Extremism Project and a former prison governor

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