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Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice (2nd edn)

Anthea Hucklesby and Azrini Wahidin
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  • Anthea Hucklesby
  •  and Azrini Wahidin


This introductory chapter first sets out the book's purpose, which is to explore the key issues relating to the criminal justice system in the early part of the twenty-first century. It aims to provide undergraduate students with an overview of the institutions and agencies of the criminal justice system and the issues that arise with the process by which individuals are convicted and punished for transgressing the criminal law. The chapter then discusses the UK criminal justice system; criminal justice in context; and the effectiveness the criminal justice system. An overview of the subsequent chapters is also presented.

The criminal justice system is the primary mechanism for dealing with those who are suspected of committing criminal offences. Its job would be straight forward if its suspicions about individuals were always accurate and it was simply a formality to convict them in a court of law. The reality is much more complex because there are a multiplicity of influences on how the criminal justice system operates and who it selects to suspect and convict of committing criminal offences. It is not as simple as convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent as the continuing existence of miscarriages of justice demonstrates.

The criminal justice system is a complex social institution which regulates, governs and controls social disorder and contemporaneously maintains the status quo of a particular society (see Garland, 1990). The criminal justice system provides a state response to alleged and actual infractions of the criminal law. It is a system of agencies, processes and practices responding to individuals who have either broken the law or are victims of crime. How a society operates its criminal justice system is one of the benchmarks by which its democratic credentials are measured. Operating according to the rule of law and due process and human rights standards is fundamental to a just and fair criminal justice system. How criminal justice systems deal with individuals is as important as achieving accurate outcomes to assessments of fairness and justice (Tyler, 2006). A transparent process which is open to public scrutiny, treats participants with respect and gives them a voice are elements of a legitimate criminal justice system (Tyler, 2006). In general criminal justice systems are designed to protect individuals from wrongful treatment and inaccurate outcomes. The normative framework of the criminal justice system is one which relates to principles of justice, due process, fairness and equality. A legitimate criminal justice system is one which convicts the guilty and exonerates the innocent according to the rule of law and these normative principles.

International standards for criminal justice systems are prescribed by human rights conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which has been enshrined into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998. They define the principles of individual rights which include inter alia a right to liberty and security, a right to fair trial and prevention of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. These may appear to be standards to which all of us would sign up to but ‘Human Rights’ has become a hotly debated political issue. This arises partly because debates about human rights in the UK are linked with the much wider role of the European Union. Cases accusing the UK of breaching individuals’ human rights in the context of the criminal justice system are regularly dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights. Some are successful and have controversially resulted in UK governments being required to change law, policy or practice. However, at the time of writing the Coalition Government is refusing to implement fully a European Court decision that prisoners have the right to vote—a right which is currently not available to convicted prisoners. Further issues arise because human rights principles are by their very nature vague and offer no guidance on whose rights take precedence when individuals’ rights conflict as they often do in criminal justice settings.

Equality before the law is a further key normative principle of criminal justice. Justice should prevail whoever is involved in a case. Yet, the criminal justice system operates in an unequal society where power, status and wealth are unevenly distributed. The powerful not only have the ability to define what is viewed as criminal but also to shape the operation of the criminal justice process for its own ends. Consequently, certain types of offences are dealt with differently. For instance, deaths at work are not dealt with as the traditional offences of murder and manslaughter resulting in very low numbers of criminal convictions and derisory levels of punishment (Tombs and Whyte, 2007). Power is distributed unevenly across the major social divisions of society including gender, race and class. At every stage in the criminal justice system research has demonstrated that different groups receive divergent treatment. In some cases, most notably in relation to the treatment of minority ethnic groups, discriminatory practices have been officially recognised (see House of Commons, 2006; MacPherson, 1999). But even where action has been taken to deal with discriminatory practices, divergent outcomes remain. For instance, Black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than White individuals (Home Office, 2012a; MoJ, 2011) and comprise around a quarter of the prison population which is well in excess of their representation in the general population (MoJ, 2012a). Injustice also arises from inaction or negligence. For example, conviction rates for allegations of rape are extremely low (Government Equalities Office, 2010) and Zahid Mubarek was murdered by his racist cell mate because of failings within the prison service (House of Commons, 2006).

Ensuring that normative ideals are upheld in a fully functioning criminal justice system raises significant challenges which we have already seen are not always met. The political nature of criminal justice makes the task harder. Since the late 1970s, law and order has been one of the main policy areas which the political parties have used to push their particular brand of politics and demonstrate their governing credentials (Simon, 2007). A process of one-upmanship has ensued whereby parties have constantly put forward, and usually implemented, a raft of measures to bring more ‘offenders’ to justice and punish them more severely whilst providing for additional safeguards and rights to victims of crime. The result has been characterised as a ‘punitive turn’ (Pratt et al, 2005) although whether it is in fact a reversal of previous policies or a continuation of long-term trend is open to debate.

Being labelled as ‘soft of crime’ by either their fellow politicians or the media is viewed as political suicide. Outing politicians with comparatively liberal views on crime and criminal justice is just one of the many ways in which the media in all its forms influences public perceptions, politicians’ views and probably policy on criminal justice. The media dishes up a daily diet of real cases often engaging in debates about whether offenders received the sentences they deserved. It has become common place for victims and/or their families to be filmed on courtroom steps after the conclusion of cases stating that sentences received by offenders are not sufficiently severe. Rarely, if ever, do they voice satisfaction with the outcome giving an impression that all victims think that sentences are too lenient. Alongside coverage of real cases, there are an increasing number of reality television programmes focusing on the day to day work of criminal justice agencies and institutions. Additionally, the fictional media provides frequent, often idealised, portrayals of the criminal justice system in crime dramas but also in general programmes about everyday life such as Eastenders and Emmerdale. Whether the cases are real or imagined, newsworthiness dictates that it is the exceptional cases, usually involving serious offences, which come to the attention of the viewers or readers. Only in local papers tucked away in the inside pages are the mundane proceedings of magistrates’ courts reported which provide a more realistic representation of the work of the criminal justice system. The media has also attempted to more directly influence criminal justice policy. Examples include the outing of sex offenders and the News of the World campaign for the introduction of Sarah’s Law which if introduced would have allowed for the identification of sex offenders in the communities in which they live. The media also play an important role in assisting the police to publicise cases in order to glean information from the public about crimes which have been committed. Whilst this is a legitimate role for the media, recent revelations about the very close relationship between the police and the media raise serious questions about what is appropriate and where the boundaries of police/media relations should lie (Leveson, 2012).

Given the time and energy devoted to criminal justice issues by politicians and the media, it would appear safe to assume that the link between what the criminal justice system does and levels of crime was strong. For instance, listening to political debates one might think that more severe sentences such as those recently introduced for carrying knives in public translate easily into a reduced incidence of these types of offences. Yet, the chain of events between an offence being committed, reported by the victim and recorded by the police and a suspect being apprehended, charged, convicted and sentenced is a long one with many legitimate and illegitimate reasons why offenders may not be convicted. Indeed, it has been estimated that only around three per cent of offences result in an offender being punished (Ashworth, 2010). Consequently, despite what politicians and the media amongst others would like us to believe, increasing the severity of sentences is unlikely to result directly in reduced rates of offending.

As we have already begun to explore the criminal justice system is a key institution of society and is embedded in a particular legal, spatial, cultural, historical, political, economic and social context. It impinges directly or indirectly upon a large number of individuals including: victims; suspects; defendants; offenders; and their families and friends. The criminal justice system is also economically important employing a large number of people both in frontline occupations including: police officers; prosecution lawyers; judges; probation officers; and prison officers; and in ‘backroom’ functions such as administration and the day to day running of prisons. Despite the considerable costs associated with operating the criminal justice process, historically, some parts of the system have been somewhat immune to budget cuts. However, all parts of the system are being required to make substantial savings as part of the Coalition Government austerity measures.

This book explores the key issues relating to the criminal justice system in the early part of the twenty-first century. It anticipates little or no prior knowledge of the subject area seeking to provide an introductory text for those interested in the criminal justice system. It aims to provide undergraduate students with a critical introduction to the institutions and agencies of the criminal justice system and the issues that arise with the process by which individuals are convicted and punished for transgressing the criminal law. Figure 0.1 shows the basic process through which suspects travel in order to be convicted of an offence. Eight chapters (Chapters 2–9) guide the reader through the process, whilst the remaining chapters explore issues thematically and in relation to particular groups’ experiences of the criminal justice system and two increasing important aspects of the operation of criminal justice—the application of psychology and science.

Figure 0.1 The criminal justice process in England and Wales

Adapted from Home Office (1999: 28, 40)

What is the criminal justice ‘system’?

There are three distinctive criminal justice systems within the United Kingdom: England and Wales; Scotland; and Northern Ireland. Each of these operate with different laws, procedures and in some cases, institutions and agencies. They also come under the auspices of different Ministries (Home Office/Ministry of Justice in England and Wales, the Justice Department in Scotland, and the Northern Ireland Office) (more information about the criminal justice system is available at: 〈〉). In England and Wales, the Home Office has responsibility for crime, the police, policing, drugs policy and counter-terrorism whilst the Ministry of Justice oversees the justice system including the judiciary, courts and probation and prison services. This collection concentrates predominantly on England and Wales but there are many common themes between the jurisdictions in the UK which make the discussions relevant to all of them although the different legal and institutional structures make specific details differ. Over time there has been a general convergence of criminal justice policy not just in the UK but in many common law jurisdictions.

The criminal justice system is the term used to describe the institutions and agencies which respond officially to the commission of offences. By progressing through this volume chapter by chapter readers will gain a comprehensive understanding of the main institutions and agencies of the criminal justice process. Our task here is to briefly map out the contours of the criminal justice system. At first sight it would seem a relatively straightforward exercise to map the institutions and agencies involved and most people would be able to name the central and most visible agencies. Yet even simple, ‘common sense’ descriptions of what the criminal justice system does and who is involved in its operation masks a variety of tensions, contradictions and problems.

The main criminal justice agencies are as follows:

The police

There are 43 police forces in England and Wales, one in Northern Ireland and since April 2013 one in Scotland. All police forces are headed by a Chief Constable supported by other Chief Officers. They are responsible for operational policing in their areas. In England and Wales, Police and Crime Commissioners were first appointed via public elections in November 2012. They are responsible for: setting police budgets; determining force priorities; holding Chief Constables to account on behalf of the public for performance; and ensuring that the force operates efficiently and effectively (see Rowe and Ellison, Chapters 2 and 3, this volume).

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

In England and Wales, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) in Scotland and the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland (PPS) are responsible for prosecuting the majority of offences in their respective jurisdictions. The English and Northern Ireland services are headed by Directors of Public Prosecution who have overall responsibility for prosecution decisions (see Hucklesby, Chapter 4, this volume).

Criminal Defence Service

operates under the auspices of the Law Commission. It ensures that legal representation is available to eligible suspects and defendants through the use of full-time public defence lawyers and contracted lawyers working in private sector law firms (see Hucklesby, Chapter 4, this volume).

Her Majesty’s (HM) Courts and Tribunals Service

has responsibility for the operation of the courts in England and Wales. There are a number of different levels of courts in England and Wales:

Magistrates’ courts – are the lowest courts. Most criminal cases begin in these courts and less serious offences are completed in them. They are presided over by magistrates (lay members of the community) or District Judges (full time professionals).

Crown Court – deals with more serious cases which are heard by judges and juries (12 members of the local community).

Court of Appeal – the criminal division deals with appeals against conviction and sentences from the Crown Court.

Supreme Court – is the final court of appeal in the UK for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland (see Cammiss, Chapter 5, this volume).

The court system in Scotland differs to that in England and Wales. Details can be found at: 〈〉.

The National Offender Management Service

is an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Justice. Its role is to commission and provide offender services in the community and in custody in England and Wales. It funds and oversees the work of Probation Trusts and the Prison Service and increasingly the voluntary and private sector who are providing offender-related services (see Mair, Chapter 8, this volume).

Probation Trusts

The probation service in England and Wales prepares reports for courts to assist with bail and sentencing decisions and supervises offenders serving community orders and prisoners who are released from prison on licence. They also manage approved premises and work with prisoners whilst they are incarcerated. There are 35 probation trusts in England and Wales who receive funding from the National Offender Management Service (see Mair, Chapter 8, this volume).

HM Prison Service

The prison services of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have responsibility for all state run custodial institutions in their jurisdictions (see Wahidin, Chapter 9, this volume).

Youth Justice

In each of the three jurisdictions children and young people are dealt with by a separate system to those which exist for adults. The processing of children and young people is the responsibility of the Youth Justice Board in England and Wales which in turn is responsible for local Youth Offending Services/Teams. The youth justice service in Northern Ireland is overseen by the Youth Justice Agency. Youth justice services are multi-agency teams drawing members from a range of statutory agencies within and outside of the criminal justice agencies including children’s services and social services (see Souhami, Chapter 11, this volume).

Outside of this core group of agencies, the boundaries of the criminal justice system become blurred with many of the agencies involved in the criminal justice enterprise not being immediately apparent or widely known about. The majority of the organisations named below are non-governmental public bodies or quangos which are independent of government but funded by them. The list which follows is not exhaustive but rather illustrative of the large number of less visible criminal justice organisations. One example is the Parole Board which takes crucial independent decisions about when prisoners should be released and if they should be recalled to prison once released. A second example is the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority which has responsibility for compensating victims of crime. Another large group of criminal justice agencies are those involved in inspection and accountability functions within the criminal justice system such as HM Inspectorates of Constabulary, the Crown Prosecution Service, Probation and Prisons, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The Inspectorates undertake announced and unannounced inspections of the services provided by criminal justice agencies and carry out thematic inspections of particular areas of criminal justice activities (see for example, 〈〉). The IPCC (〈〉) and ombudsman (〈〉) handle complaints about the police and probation and prison services respectively whilst the CCRC reviews cases in which a miscarriage of justice is alleged to have occurred (〈〉). All custodial institutions have schemes, for example Independent Monitoring Boards in prisons, whereby lay members of the public can enter facilities regularly and, in theory, unannounced to monitor conditions.

Outside of the statutory sector, the voluntary and community sector has a long tradition of working in criminal justice both locally and nationally. Voluntary and community organisations are often charities and generally non-profit making. They are involved in the whole range of criminal justice services including providing services to victims of crime (for example, Victim Support), suspects, defendants and offenders and prisoners (for example, Nacro) and their families. Voluntary organisations are also involved in penal reform undertaking advocacy and campaigning roles. Examples of such organisations are: Inquest which deals with deaths in custody, and the Howard League for Penal Reform which is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK. Historically voluntary organisations have provided supplementary services in the criminal justice system and have kept away from services which require them to make decisions which might adversely impact upon individuals such as breach decisions. Recently governments have signalled an intention to increase the involvement of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in the provision of core criminal justice services (MoJ, 2010). The policy has led to considerable debate about whether the sector should become involved in the day to day operation of criminal justice and the impact that this might have on the ethos, practices and future of the sector. It appears that whilst some VCS organisations are bidding to run a range of criminal justice services, other organisations have decided not to and are attempting to carry on providing the supplementary services with which they have traditionally been involved.

Private prisons have been part of the landscape of criminal justice since the late 1980s. They are the most visible part of the privatised criminal justice process but make up a small part of the private sector’s involvement in criminal justice. At the time of writing, the private sector are wholly responsible for the delivery of electronic tagging in the UK which monitors defendants and offenders who are on bail, and also those sentenced and released early from prison. The private sector also operate the services escorting prisoners between courts and prisons, staff police custody suites, and have contracts for the provision of a whole range of services such as education, laundry, and catering in prisons. The government has signalled its intention to increase the role of the private sector in criminal justice primarily as a way of reducing costs and improving service provision (MoJ, 2010). However, question marks exist over whether the intended outcomes will be realised in practice. There is also considerable opposition to privatisation on ethical, legal and ideological grounds (see Cavadino and Dignan, 2007). Concerns are heightened because of the global nature of the private sector with the market dominated by a small number of very large multinational companies such as G4S, Serco and 3M which have the capacity to wield considerable political influence.

To add to the already blurred boundaries, many victims and offenders face multiple social and economic problems such as lack of adequate housing, education and employment which results in both groups of individuals making up a significant proportion of the caseload of all government and community services. An illustrative example is the provision of resettlement services to prisoners. Prisoners leaving prison require somewhere to live (Local Authority), some require treatment for substance use (Health Service), they need an income (Benefits Agency) and assistance with finding employment (Job Centre Plus) or training (local education and training establishments) (SEU, 2002). Consequently, nearly all government agencies deal with people who are caught up in the criminal justice process. Sometimes agencies outside of the criminal justice process take primary responsibility for the cases of offenders. For example, if offenders are diagnosed with severe mental illness they are detained indefinitely in special/secure hospitals under the care of the Health Services’ Trusts.

Although the criminal justice institutions and agencies are separate entities and are by and large described separately in this volume, they are not isolated and are all part of the broader criminal justice process. In this way, they are interdependent and closely related and what one institution or agency does has consequences for other agencies in the process. For instance, the Crown Prosecution Service depends almost entirely on the police for the information on which it bases it decisions about whether to proceed with cases. They in turn affect the caseload of the courts. Court decisions impact upon the workloads of the prison and probation services and so on. For this reason, the criminal justice process is often referred to as a ‘system’. While this is helpful in some respects because it highlights the interconnectedness of the criminal justice agencies, it does not describe reality. The term ‘system’ suggests that the process runs systemically and is co-ordinated with each agency consulting with others in the process. But the reality is rather different. All of the agencies in the criminal justice process have different and, sometimes, competing objectives, which means that different goals may be simultaneously pursued by different organisations. These aims are not easily reconciled, either in the system as a whole or within specific agencies. For this reason the criminal justice process cannot be perceived to be co-ordinated or systematic in spite of the increasing number of examples of agencies working together. One specific initiative, which aims to increase co-ordination between agencies and policies, was the introduction of Local Criminal Justice Boards. At the time of writing there are 42 Local Criminal Justice Boards (LCJBs) who co-ordinate activity and share responsibility for delivering criminal justice in their area. These boards bring together the chief officers of the CJS agencies to co-ordinate activity and share responsibility for delivering criminal justice at a local level. The term criminal justice process recognises the lack of a co-ordinated and systematic approach to criminal justice. However, because all stages of the process are governed by a set of discrete rules, are interrelated and impact upon outcomes (see Uglow, 1995), this book generally utilises the term criminal justice system.

Criminal justice in context

Criminal Justice is a rapidly moving field and the pace of change is relentless. Every year several Acts of parliament become law which deal with crime, police or other aspects of the criminal justice process. This makes studying the criminal justice process both exciting and frustrating. On the one hand, there are always new laws and policies to examine but on the other hand it appears that nothing stays still and students and everyone employed in the criminal justice process have to continually learn about (and implement) new initiatives. The constant changes to the criminal law and criminal justice policies and process arise largely from the position of law and order at the forefront of the battleground between political parties. As a consequence, initiative after initiative is introduced often without allowing them to bed in or become fully operational before they are superseded by the next big idea.

Changes in criminal justice policy are sometimes facilitated and/or accelerated by unforeseen events. The sensitivities and high profile of crime and criminal justice related issues results in extraordinary cases highlighted in the media having a direct impact on government policy in the short and long term. Such cases, for example, include that of Gary Newlove who was murdered by a group of young men whilst trying to curb anti-social behaviour outside his home and the cases of Damien Hanson, Elliott White and Anthony Rice who were convicted of murders committed whilst on licence (HMIP, 2006a; 2006b). The most notable example of this was the murder of James Bulger by two 10 year old boys in 1993. This resulted in a reversal in the direction of penal policy (Newburn, 2003). Such cases are used to argue for amendments to the law and/or policy without any recognition that they are the exception rather than the rule. The legal changes, which result are often ill-thought out, knee-jerk reactions in order to satisfy media concerns and public anxieties.

Victims have historically been viewed as the forgotten people in the criminal justice process (see Hall, Chapter 10, this volume). Their role in the criminal justice system has begun to be addressed with victims’ interests becoming a significant driver for change to policy and practice. It has not, however, always happened with the interests or, indeed, knowledge of victims or the groups that represent them such as Victim Support. Often, improving the experiences of victims has been used as a tool to justify calls by criminal justice agencies, the media and politicians for legal and policy changes which often seek to erode the rights of suspects, defendants and offenders. So while victims’ rights have improved there has been significant erosion of the due process rights of suspects and defendants in the final decades of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century (see Hucklesby, Chapter 4, this volume). This shift has been facilitated by the criminal justice system being portrayed as a balancing exercise. On the one hand are the rights of suspects, defendants and offenders, and on the other are the rights of victims. Generally, it is viewed as a zero sum game meaning that improving the rights of one group necessarily results in the diminishing of the rights of the other group. However, the reality is more complex partly because the groups overlap as many offenders are also victims (Fattah, 1994). Increasing the rights of victims does not necessarily entail reducing rights of suspects and defendants.

A further influential trend in criminal justice policy and practice has been the increasing importance of the public protection agenda in criminal justice policy and practice. As Sparks observes (2000: 136), ‘the state cannot any longer simply perform punishment as a matter of sovereign right. It must also thereby promise something. And increasingly what it promises is protection’. More and more, the role of the criminal justice system has become defined by its ability to prevent reoffending generally but more specifically, prevent harm. Efforts have been concentrated on preventing harm measured both in terms of seriousness and frequency of offending. For example, a range of measures have been put into place to manage the risk posed by sex offenders which include complying with stringent registration and movement conditions and high levels of monitoring and surveillance by specialist teams called Multi-agency Public Protection Panels (MAPPA) (Wood and Kemshall, 2007). These measures aim to reduce the risk of sex offences being committed and provide a good example of how managing risk, i.e. the risk of harm, has been become a major concern of the criminal justice system (Feeley and Simon, 1992; Kemshall, 2003).

The rise of discourses relating to risk provides an important lens through which to view the criminal justice process in the early twenty-first century. The criminal justice process is being used increasingly to manage risk which has been labelled as ‘the new penology’ or ‘actuarial justice’ amongst others (Feeley and Simon, 1992; Kemshall, 2003). The movement is a reflection of broader shifts towards managerialism in criminal justice which has imported the techniques of the private sector into criminal justice leading to increased competition and an emphasis on economy, efficiency and effectiveness (James and Raine, 1998). Coupled with a realisation that the criminal justice system could do little to reduce crime levels, the focus has shifted towards managing the offending population who are, by definition categorised as ‘risky’ (Hannah-Moffat, 2012). The most challenging aspect of such policies is to identify the offenders who pose the greatest risk. In order to do this effectively, a range of techniques and tools for measuring and predicting risk have been introduced throughout the criminal justice system. As Hannah-Moffat (2005: 30) notes,

Offender population are routinely subdivided, categorised and classified according to the level of risk (high, medium, or low) and certain offender groups are perceived as exceptionally risky and thus as requiring special legislative control (i.e. sex offenders, mentally ill, recidivists, ‘squeegee kids’ and the homeless), which is also linked to expressions of punitive penal populism.’

However, the application and measurement of risk is not an exact science and prediction tools are more often wrong than right (Kemshall, 2003). Consequently, some individuals are wrongly assessed leading to false positives (those detained unnecessarily) and false negatives (those released erroneously). Despite problems of measurement, once offenders have been categorised, appropriate levels of management and surveillance are imposed which might include lengthy incarceration. High risk offenders (persistent offenders, sex offenders and dangerous offenders) can be targeted for the highest level of management whilst low risk individuals are managed less intensely freeing up resources for those posing significant risk. Targeting resources in this way may seem logical but serious failures (leading to deaths) have occurred principally because risk is dynamic and situational (HMIP, 2006a; 2006b).

The preoccupation with risk has also lead to criminal justice decision-makers becoming more risk averse. Consequently, they are less likely to make decisions which increase the risk of something untoward happening. For example, prison governors are less like to release prisoners early on an electronic tag just in case they reoffend (Dodgson et al., 2001). Their behaviour is explained by fear of the potential consequences if something goes wrong and what has been termed ‘defensive decision-making’.

The amount of crime being committed has reduced substantially in the last decade. The recorded crime rate has been dropping since 2003 (ONS, 2012a) and the Crime Survey of England and Wales (a victimisation survey) has shown that crime has fallen by half since its peak in the mid 1990s (ONS, 2012b). Yet, this has not reduced the number of offenders entering prison or serving community sentences. Instead, the prison population has dramatically increased and is one of the most visible consequences of the more punitive, risk adverse climate summarised by the term ‘populist punitivism’ (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007). The increase is accounted for by a rise in the use of custody alongside increasing lengths of sentences and the increasing proportion of sentences being served for some offenders, most notably those convicted of violent or sexual offences. In 1992, the prison population in England and Wales stood at 45,800 and had risen to 64,700 by 1999. But the rise in the prison population has been most dramatic during the early years of the twenty-first century when it has risen to the level of 85,800 in 2012 (MoJ, 2012a). Official projections for the prison population put the likely population level at between 80,000 and 91,000 by 2018 although these projections have never been accurate in the past, resulting in the prison population overshooting the highest projected figure well in advance of the estimated date (MoJ, 2012b). A similar picture emerges in Scotland where the prison population averaged at 8,178 in 2011–12 and is projected to rise to 9,500 by 2020–21 (Scottish Government, 2012). At the end of 2012, 1,683 people were held in prison in Northern Ireland where the prison population had dropped after rising over the preceding years (Northern Ireland Prison Service, 2013). There has been a significant increase in the imprisonment rate in England and Wales from 92.1 per 100,000 population in 1992 to 153 per 100,000 population in 2012 (ICPS, 2012). Scotland shares a high imprisonment rate of 147 per 100,000 whilst Northern Ireland’s is significantly lower at 92 per 100,000 (ICPS, 2012). England and Wales and Scotland have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the old European Union but it is still far behind the rate of the United States. The rapidly rising prison population has had far reaching effects in terms of overcrowding, the standard of regimes and the conditions in which prisoners are accommodated (see Wahidin, Chapter 9, this volume). It has been argued that the prison system is in crisis as a result of the sheer numbers (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007) but whether a system can be in crisis for more than 30 years is debatable.

The criminal justice system processes a large number of individuals. In 2010–11, nearly a million and a quarter individuals were stopped and searched (see MoJ, 2012c). In the same financial year, over 1.36 million individuals were arrested for notifiable offences (MoJ, 2012c). The year to June 2012 saw 1.91 million individuals either receive an out of court disposal or be proceeded against in court (MoJ, 2012c). Of those proceeded against for a criminal offence in all courts, 1.26 million were convicted and sentenced (MoJ, 2012c). Just under 100,000 were sentenced to immediate custody with nearly 164,000 sentenced to a community order or suspended sentence which are normally supervised by the Probation Service. In 2012, nearly 233,000 offenders were being supervised by the Probation Service (MoJ, 2012a). The majority of individuals processed through the criminal justice system are males (see McIvor and Malloch, Chapter 12, this volume). Around one in five of arrests and court disposals relate to women (MoJ, 2010c). Around a third of males in England and Wales have been convicted of a criminal offence at some time (Home Office, 2004).

The processing of this number of individuals is costly. Responsibility for the criminal justice process in England and Wales falls largely within the remit of the Ministry of Justice which was separated from the Home Office in 2007. However, some criminal justice agencies and functions most notably the police, still come under the auspices of the Home Office, which also has responsibilities for non-criminal justice areas such as immigration. Consequently, working out the expenditure on criminal justice alone is not a simple exercise. The Ministry of Justice has a budget of around £9 billion (MoJ, 2012) whilst the Home Office policing and crime budget was £6.2 million for 2012–13 (Home Office, 2012c). Soloman et al. (2007) estimated that the UK spent 2.5 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product on law and order in 2006 with a total of £22.7 billon being spent in 2007–8. More recently the police and criminal justice budgets have been reduced by 20 per cent as part of the Coalition’s drive to reduce public expenditure (Travis, 2010). Nevertheless, the highest proportion of criminal justice expenditure is on staff. For example, the Ministry of Justice employed 76,000 people and there are just over 134,000 police officers in England and Wales in 2012 (Home Office, 2012b; MoJ, 2012e).

Assessing the effectiveness of the criminal justice system

A quick scan of the newspapers would suggest that concerns exist about how the criminal justice system operates and its effectiveness. It would also lead to the conclusion that there is a general perception, if not a concrete acknowledgement, that public confidence in this important state institution is low and its legitimacy in doubt. So, how can we assess whether the criminal justice system ‘works’? Attempting to answer this seemingly straightforward question is complex and in order to do so there must be agreement about the purpose of the criminal justice system. Most people would agree that the primary goal of the criminal justice system is to reduce crime but it also has the function of punishing offenders for wrong doing (see Scott, Chapter 6, this volume), maintaining the peace and responding to events such as the riots in 2011 (Reading the Riots at 〈〉). If the latter function is deemed the most important, then there are questions about the effectiveness of the criminal justice process because most offences remain unsolved.

Most commonly the effectiveness of the criminal justice system is measured in terms of its impact on offending. One way of assessing this would be to study crime rates and assess whether changes in criminal justice policies have had an impact. However, there are a wide range of factors which may intervene, so even if an effect can be detected, it does not necessarily mean that one caused the other. Furthermore, there is no way of knowing the direction of causation. For example, if a new initiative is introduced to channel offenders into drugs treatment and the crime rate falls for the period after its implementation this may have resulted from the initiative. Equally, however, it may have resulted from many other factors such as a rise in the use of imprisonment during the same period or demographic changes in the population. The second way to assess the impact of the criminal justice system on offending is reconviction rates. This is the usual approach but this too has its flaws (Lloyd et al., 1994). First, reconviction rates only measure known offending, which is dealt with by the courts. It does not take account of offences for which offenders are not caught. Consequently, it does not measure reoffending. Second, reconviction rates usually do not take account of changes in frequency and severity of offending although some official statistics do (MoJ, 2012d). This is important because it is often unrealistic to expect offenders to desist from offending totally in the short term. Desisting from crime is a process rather than an event meaning that offenders are likely to have relapses in much the same way as people who are trying to give up smoking (Farrall and Calverley, 2006; Maruna, 2000). Thirdly, differences in reconviction rates may simply represent differences in police and prosecution practices. Fourthly, reconviction rates provide no explanation about why changes have occurred or differences exist. Despite these problems, reconviction rates are commonly used. For example, the Coalition Government plans to use the binary measure of being reconvicted or not as the basis for measuring the outcomes of Payment by Results whereby service providers will be paid according to their success in reducing reconviction rates (Fox and Albertson, 2011; Maguire, 2012). Current reconviction data indicate that a quarter of adults are reconvicted within one year rising to nearly half of adults leaving prison (MoJ, 2012d). Reconviction rates are higher for juveniles with over a third of this group being reconvicted within one year (Ministry of Justice, 2012d).

Guide to the book

The book is designed to be a course text for modules, which introduces the criminal justice system to students or to be dipped into for less specialised modules examining all or part of the criminal justice process. The book is aimed primarily at first and second year undergraduates who have little or no prior knowledge of the criminal justice process. However, it also provides challenges to readers who have more knowledge of the process by introducing the main issues pertinent to each chapter which can then be explored in more depth by using the further reading sections. Review questions appear at the end of sections within chapters and discussion questions are provided at the end of chapters for use by both students and lecturers. A glossary of key terms is provided at the end of the book. A web-site accompanies the book which provides teaching resources, namely outline lecture notes and multiple choice questions.

In Chapter 1, Loraine Gelsthorpe charts some of the major developments in modern British society against which changes in criminal justice policy should be seen: the emergence of a culture of control amidst economic, technological and social changes; the politicisation of law and order; the development of a risk society; the emerging dominance of managerialism; and the democratisation of criminal justice. She then goes on to discuss the notion of the ‘Big Society’ and considers its impact on criminal justice policy. In the third section of the chapter she outlines some events which have driven changes in direction of criminal justice policy. Chapters 2 to 9 of the book work through the criminal justice process from the beginning to the end. The focus of chapters 2 and 3 is the police and policing. In Chapter 2, Mike Rowe examines the organisation and delivery of policing by exploring policing in terms of different approaches to the role and mandate of the service. The chapter also outlines the institutional arrangement of policing, different strategies and models, governance and accountability, and key challenges that the police will face in the future. The focus of Chapter 3, by Graham Ellison, is on the practice or ‘doing’ of state policing and examines why and how certain police policies and practices impact disproportionately on particular social groups. It also explores ‘policing’ as something beyond what the state police do to examine the role of the private/corporate sector in the provision of policing and security. In Chapter 4, Anthea Hucklesby explores issues relating to the prosecution process introducing some of the main theoretical and conceptual issues as well as examining a number of key trends in recent criminal justice law and policy. In Chapter 5, Steven Cammiss provides an outline of the courts, investigating their functions and evaluating their role. The chapter ends by questioning whether the reality of the courts lives up to the rhetoric of trial by jury as the pinnacle of due process protections. In Chapter 6, David Scott examines issues relating to theories of punishment providing an overview of the nature and justifications for punishment. He questions the role of punishment in modern society. In Chapter 7, Gavin Dingwall reviews sentencing policy and practice focusing particularly on issues related to consistency in sentencing. In Chapter 8, George Mair examines the history of community sentences focusing specifically on their role as alternatives to imprisonment. In Chapter 9, Azrini Wahidin highlights some of the key issues and challenges facing the prison system currently and historically and critically appraises the extent to which prisons can be considered to work.

The remainder of the book takes a thematic approach. Chapters 10, 11, 12 and 13 explore particular groups’ experiences of the criminal justice system. Matthew Hall, Anna Souhami, Margaret Malloch and Gill McIvor, and Alpa Parmar critically examine the criminal justice system’s treatment of victims, young people, women and minority ethnic groups respectively. In Chapters 14 and 15, Joanna Adler and Paul Roberts critically reflect upon the role of psychology and science respectively in the criminal justice process.


We would like to thank the chapter authors for their contributions and for putting up with our persistent nudges to complete the chapters. It may have taken a little longer than anticipated but we all got there in the end.

We are grateful to Helen Davis from Oxford University Press for her advice and support throughout this project.

We would both like to acknowledge the continuing support of our colleagues at the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, at the University of Leeds, and at Nottingham Trent University.


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