Mark Fletton writes:
Let me pose another question. What do we mean when we say ‘the criminal justice system’? It would be an interesting experiment to simply stop now and invite responses. It is a phrase which is used frequently, and yet we rarely stop to consider what it actually means. If we want to feel ‘safe’, and maybe not think too much, we could simply go to one of the many online or ‘hard copy’ sources and lift a definition. If you do that, you will probably find a definition along the lines provided, for example, by Oxford Dictionaries which provides that a ‘criminal justice system’ is ‘The system of law enforcement that is directly involved in apprehending, prosecuting, defending, sentencing, and punishing those who are suspected or convicted of criminal offences.’
All very neat, isn’t it? In twenty-five words we have encapsulated the essence of one of the most vital components of our society: one that deals with protecting the citizenry from all manner of ‘harms and wrongs’ and ‘punishing’ those who perpetrate those wrongs. And it covers a huge production line, from initial apprehension of suspects (normally undertaken by an organisation established and dedicated to that purpose) to those who undertake and dispense ‘punishment’, and all stations in between. The same dictionary uses twenty-eight words to define ‘elephant’.
‘Systems’ are good. A system is a set of things working together as parts, forming a complex whole. A watch is a system, the pipes which bring water into your home comprise a system, and your body is a system – a system which contains many other systems. Notice anything about these systems? Well, they all work together with a simple purpose. If a spring goes in your watch, you can’t tell the right time. If a water-pipe bursts, you can forget a cup of tea in the morning. And if your blood gets infected, you are going to need a doctor, quick.
I am going to argue that the criminal justice ‘system’ (if we adopt the simple definition above), as it has evolved, is really not a ‘system’ at all. I would describe it more as an ‘industry’, although in many ways an industry at least seems to have the advantage of having some idea of the reason for its existence and its primary goals. The car industry exists to produce metal boxes with wheels to make people’s lives more comfortable and enjoyable, and to make as much financial profit as possible whilst doing it. The management and employees all know what they are striving to achieve and generally all pull in the same direction to achieve it. The criminal justice ‘industry’ is a huge undertaking, mainly financed from the public purse, and employing an eye-watering number of people. There are some 130,000 serving police officers, for example, and that is before we begin to count the number of Police Community Support Officers and staff in support roles. Then you have court staff up and down the country, the CPS and its support staff, solicitors, barristers, judges, prison staff, probation staff and on and on. This is, on any view, a sizeable enterprise.
Criminal legislation generally begins in Parliament, when the governing political party, or parties, decide that a particular activity or behaviour should be deemed a criminal offence. This is often, though by all means not always, driven by what they perceive the general public consider as important (and which political party wants to dent their prospects of electoral success?) or as a response to specific events (eg terrorist attacks – consider the volume of criminal legislation this has driven in the past thirteen years!). Of course, the politicians would say that they are taking steps to protect the public; which, by happy coincidence, helps to obtain the support of the electorate if they can convince them they have protected them by passing the legislation, and shown them they are ‘tough on crime’. The police, of course, have the task of apprehending those who they deem to be breaching these laws. They then pass the person accused of a crime to the court system, where eventually evidence is tested and guilt established, or not, as the case may be. If guilty, the convicted person then moves into the ‘punishment’ regime, the sausage meat end of the process.
I suggest that any system is ordinarily judged by success in achieving what it is designed to do. A watch is designed to tell the time, water-pipes to deliver water, and your body to stay alive, and if any of these things don’t result we would have no hesitation in saying the system has failed. The failure of one component in an integrated task will defeat the purpose. But what is the purpose of the ‘criminal justice system’, and what are the criteria for ‘success’?
Although some readers may regard it as cynical, a government passing laws will see the success of what they are doing in essentially keeping the electorate happy, and getting re-elected. The police will see success in terms of arresting people they believe have broken the law, and hitting their ‘targets’ as efficiently as possible. The Crown Prosecution Service, charged with the task of prosecuting those in the court system, sees ‘success’ as achieving as many convictions as they can. Defence solicitors and barristers see ‘success’ as the acquittal of as many of their clients as possible. Judges see ‘success’ as passing what they deem to be a sentence ‘in accordance with the law and guidelines laid down’ to the point where they are not the subject of too many successful appeals. Those involved in running the prisons see ‘success’ as implementing a regime where prisoners are kept secure and don’t escape. Probation officers, and probably prison governors also, may see ‘success’ as their charges not returning to a life of crime. Of course, each one of these integral parts will say they don’t view ‘success’ in the way I have suggested: the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, will try to suggest that ‘success’ is in ensuring only the guilty are convicted. This overlooks the fact that they are not ultimately responsible for that outcome; a jury or bench of magistrates are, and all the CPS can do is ask itself ‘is there a reasonable prospect of conviction of person X on the evidence we have’ and, if so, try to secure a conviction against them; otherwise why bring the case? It can be seen that the criminal justice system really is not an interlocking mechanism of parts all vital to produce a successful outcome. It is a smorgasbord of bodies and people who have different aims, different interests, and who have different primary outlooks on what counts as a ‘success’.
I would liken the criminal justice system to a pantomime horse. It is a combination of parts, none of which quite know what the other is exactly doing, or more importantly why. What holds it together and provides it with some semblance of cohesion is a great brown big cloth, designed to create the illusion of a horse. The reality of course is that we all know it isn’t a real horse but is just doing an impression of one. All we need to do is suspend our disbelief for a while and our imagination can do the rest. For a time, the two people bent double under the cloth and moving on stage are a horse.
As I mentioned in Part 1, there are plenty of people who will try and convince you that the criminal justice system, as it may be traditionally understood, is based on Judeo-Christian values. For a variety of reasons that I need not go into, I don’t subscribe to that particular piece of casuistry. I do, however, concede that there is one element of the Judeo-Christian tradition which has been the bedrock of the criminal justice system for many centuries, namely that individuals have been born as moral free-agents, possessing absolute free will when it comes to thought and action. The Judeo-Christian theology, which has permeated every part of the life and culture of England and Wales, again for many centuries, is predicated on the notion that everyone is free to think and act as they wish. Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a list of ten holy commandments, among them several ‘thought crimes’, including coveting your neighbour’s goods and his wife. The last two parts of this series have attempted to provide cogent reasons why thoughts are out of your control, and why you cannot be ‘blamed’ for them. And yet our entire system of ‘justice’ rests upon assumptions about human nature, and principles carved out of stone by the finger of God on a mountain several thousand years ago; namely the notion that you can control your thoughts, and your actions (and I will return to address that in a later part), and that if you don’t you will receive punishment, and the moral outrage of your fellow citizens. We have allowed Bronze Age assumptions to journey with us unthinkingly through thousands of years, never putting the bags down long enough to ask whether they actually reflect what human beings really are and how they really operate, within the context of how best to protect society from ‘harm’.
Borrowing from the publication that brought us Moses and the holy commandments for a moment, in Matthew 7:24-27 we are taught the parable of the wise and foolish builders. Essentially, if you build your house on a foundation of sand, sooner or later it is going to be found out by an influx of water. I have long argued, rather like Noah, that the rain is coming and that eventually the cracks in the ‘criminal justice system’ will be too large to ignore. If the ‘system’ is predicated on a premise that is false, the conclusions will be flawed and the outcomes will not be ‘justice’. If free will is the illusion I contend it is, then ‘punishment’ is futile, and indeed the very word becomes meaningless. This is not to say that society does not need either laws or procedures in place to both protect its citizens and, wherever possible, to remove as far as possible the risk of those who have caused harm from doing so again. But if free will is an illusion, we need a new approach and a new vocabulary for the reality we actually face, rather than continue to suspend our disbelief and seeing the pantomime horse as the real thing.
Very few people want to lift this particular stone for fear of what they might find underneath. It is far easier to keep holding the security blanket of history and the overarching, but rationally and scientifically threadbare, beliefs which now seem ingrained into our psyches. So instead of asking ourselves what this ‘system’ is trying to achieve, and by extension asking ourselves how we are going to achieve it, we just ignore the issue and carry on, but in an increasingly frenzied way. What ‘justice’ meant for the Blair administration, for instance, was to pass some three thousand new criminal offences in a nine year period. During this ‘law-fest’, activities such as selling grey squirrels and impersonating a traffic warden became criminal offences. Had a law been passed making it compulsory for traffic wardens to impersonate human beings, I might have had rather more sympathy. But the prevailing attitude now for some time has been to increasingly regulate people and their behaviour by the creation of criminal offences, to the point where you begin to ask yourself whether the true intention is to ensure that everyone secures themselves a criminal record sooner or later, with all the baggage that brings with it. What is really needed is to ask ourselves ‘what are we trying to achieve by doing this, and what is the best way of doing it, based on hard realities and a true assessment of ourselves as human beings?’
And if free will is an illusion then, as I have suggested, ‘punishment’ becomes futile, and we need to look afresh at what we are trying to achieve in each individual case. We send people to prison, only to find out they are released and ‘reoffend’. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Justice in 2013, one in four ‘criminals’ reoffend within one year, committing five hundred thousand offences between them. For those leaving the prison system, the reoffending rate was 47.2%. Is this meant to represent ‘success’? Bearing in mind the statistics are not broken down by individual offences, it is hard to know how many of these ‘reoffenders’ fall into the category because they sold a grey squirrel or acquired a fetish for traffic warden uniforms.
What religion and the criminal justice system have in common, for sure, is that they both rely on faith to survive. As long as you have faith that what you see is a horse, you will ignore the brown cloth and cardboard face and continue to try to feed it a sugar lump. What is not so sure is how much longer faith can be maintained in the face of the overwhelming evidence that the ‘system’, from first to last, is deeply flawed and operating against the very thing it should be doing, namely protecting the public.
Mark Fletton is a former barrister, a hardened and devoted Sheffield Wednesday FC supporter. He is now a writer/researcher and lives in Exeter, Devon.