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Judicial Scorecards

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone; I thank Mr Speaker for granting me permission to hold this debate this morning; and I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), to his seat, from which he will listen to and respond to this debate on an issue that I want to raise not only on my own behalf but most importantly on behalf of my constituents.

That issue is what I have called judicial scorecards. The idea is that each judge and magistrate should be presented with an annual report of those people who have appeared before them and who have been sentenced by them, including details of any reoffending that has taken place since sentencing. Every year, each judge and magistrate would be given a simple and straightforward report that would detail the names of the defendants who have appeared before them, the crimes of which those defendants were accused and the sentence that was imposed, compared with the sentence that could have been imposed under the maximum terms set out in the relevant legislation. The report would also include details of any subsequent reoffending, not only for the crime for which the defendants appeared before the judge or magistrate but for other crimes that the defendants may have committed.

There is a fundamental gap in our criminal justice system. Judges and magistrates do their best, but as far as I can tell they never actually know what happens to those defendants whom they sentence. Judges and magistrates arrive at their sentencing decision, having taken into account the guidelines produced by the Sentencing Council; using their best opinion, they arrive at a decision as to what is the most appropriate sentence and that sentence is then imposed; but they never know subsequently whether or not that sentence was effective.

The same is true for police officers. I declare an interest as a special constable with the British Transport police. I often talk to police officers about the arrests they have made and I ask, “Oh, what happened to Joe Smith, whom you arrested for fare evasion?”, or, “What happened to Joe Bloggs, whom you arrested for burglary?” The officer will reply, “Oh, I don’t know.” I ask, “Do you have any idea what sentence he was awarded?” They reply, “No, I don’t know. My job was done. I arrested the offender and he was presented before the courts, or otherwise.” It is a great shame that police officers do not know that information; they are not informed about what happens to the people they arrest. The same is true for the judiciary, regarding the people they sentence.

Our criminal justice system would be improved if judges and magistrates knew more about what happened to the people they sentence. At one level, that is a very human thing. We are dealing with individuals who have broken the law and the judges and magistrates are doing their best to impose the correct sentence, but unless they are updated on whether or not that sentence was effective there will continue to be a big gap in our criminal justice system.

Mr Bone, you will know that 10% of criminals commit 50% of the crime in this country. You, I, the Minister and everyone in this House, as well as all of our constituents, are really concerned about the high reoffending rates in this country. When I asked the Minister about reoffending on 11 January, he provided some very helpful statistics to the House. I asked him:

“What the reoffending rates were for those sentenced to jail terms of (a) one year, (b) five years and (c) 10 years in the latest period for which figures are available”.

He helpfully replied:

“In 2008, the rate of reconviction within one year for adults discharged from custody after a sentence of less than a year was 61.1%; it was 31.0% for those given sentences of one to five years; 17.5% for offenders given sentences of five to 10 years, and 6.4% for 10 years or more.”

I then asked:

“Does the Minister agree that…the longer prisoners spend in prison the greater the chance of ensuring their effective rehabilitation before being released?”

He replied:

“We have to ensure that longer sentences are given to recidivist offenders and that we effectively rehabilitate people and break the cycle of crime through the proposals that we have presented in the Green Paper to drive that number down.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 147.]

I absolutely agree with that—we have to get those reoffending rates down. The Minister and I are in complete agreement that when 10% of criminals are committing 50% of the crime, those recidivist offenders must receive longer sentences, and yet, as we all know, the problem, again and again, is that those recidivist offenders are not being given the stiff sentences early enough in their criminal careers to deter them from a life of crime. Part of the reason why I am so enthusiastic about the idea of judicial scorecards is that they would help to alert judges and magistrates at an early stage in a criminal’s career that the criminal was not being given a sentence that was stiff enough.

I raised the proposal for judicial scorecards on the Floor of the House with the Minister’s boss, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, on 28 June. I asked him:

“If he will take steps to ensure that judges and magistrates are informed of incidents of reoffending of each offender they have sentenced”.

He replied:

“We have begun work to improve access to local criminal justice statistics. For example, criminal justice and sentencing statistics are now broken down to court level and are available online. In terms of individuals, pre-sentence reports provide the court with details of a defendant’s offending history and compliance with any previous sentences.”

I then said:

“Although it is important to have judicial independence, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Department that each judge and each magistrate should be given an annual report card on the effectiveness of their sentencing decisions. If they have given out a string of sentences and the convicts have reoffended regularly, that judge or magistrate will know that something is wrong with their approach.”

He replied:

“As I said, we have begun work, and that is certainly an interesting suggestion. A massive amount of data would be involved in providing every judge and magistrate with full information about everybody they had ever sentenced”. —[Official Report, 28 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 738.]

I was pleased that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice saw this idea of judicial scorecards as an “interesting” approach, but it sounds to me from his responses in June that the Ministry of Justice is already making some progress towards them. If statistics are being

“broken down to court level and are available online”,

we are going in the right direction, and I do not believe that it would necessarily involve a massive amount of data to tie up an offender’s criminal history with the judge or magistrate before whom they appeared. It would help to make the criminal justice system far more effective. At the end of the day, what my constituents want is judges and magistrates to award sentences that are effective in preventing reoffending. Introducing more transparency into the system to reveal whether judges and magistrates are awarding such sentences would assist the judges and magistrate themselves, and help to improve the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.

In the exchange on the Floor of the House that I mentioned earlier, another Member asked:

“There is considerable evidence that judges do not know enough about what happens once they sentence prisoners and those sentences have been disposed of. Will the Justice Secretary do what he can to increase the experience obtained by judges of those disposals and will he ask the Sentencing Council to advise, with a particular focus on what works in preventing offending and reoffending?”

The Justice Secretary replied:

“The Sentencing Council is already under a duty to provide information about the effectiveness of sentencing practice”.—[Official Report, 28 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 738.]

It seems to me, however, that that duty to provide information about the effectiveness of sentencing practice is not specific enough to the individual judges and magistrates making the decisions. We do not have that far to go from the collection of statistics at a court level to doing it on an individual level for each judge and magistrate.

That is not to criticise judges and magistrates; it is to help them. We know that every time we stand up and speak in this place, and every time we vote, information is recorded for every member of the public to access online, to see whether we are turning up and representing constituents’ concerns. Every time a premier league footballer kicks a ball, the data are recorded and a scorecard is produced of his effectiveness throughout the season. I believe that the information is there in the court process, and it could be distilled in a simplified way in an annual report card, helping to inform judges and magistrates about whether they are making the right decisions.

Evidence about this sort of thing was presented to the Select Committee on Justice in 2009-10, and included in its January 2010 report entitled “Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment”. Michael Marcus, a circuit court judge from Portland, Oregon, presented evidence to the Committee about how this sort of approach can help the judicial system to be more effective because of the awarding of correct sentences. With yesterday’s welcome announcement from the Ministry of Justice about the introduction of television into courts, it seems that the Department is receptive to making our criminal justice system more transparent.

The Justice Minister will know, as will you, Mr Bone, that many of our constituents do not have the confidence they ought to have in our criminal justice system, because some of the sentencing decisions are not consistent. We have the recent example of the riots in London and other metropolitan areas in August, when the clerks to the magistrates seemed to be saying, “You don’t have to adhere to the guidelines that have been issued by the Sentencing Council; make the riots a special case.” My constituents would say, “The stiff sentences awarded to rioters should be the same as the stiff sentences awarded to everyone, not just in August 2011 but all the time.” There should be consistency in sentencing, and the judicial scorecard approach would help.

It comes down to the number of people we sentence to prison terms, and I think that my constituents’ view is that not enough criminals go to jail. There seems to be a myth in this country that we have too many people in prison, but I contest that that is absolutely not the case. If we look at the percentage of prisoners per 100,000 people, we are pretty near the global average, but if we look at the number of prisoners in relation to the number of crimes committed we do not have the highest prison population in the western world; we have the lowest. On that measure, compared with the United States, Canada, Australia and the EU as a whole, the UK has the lowest prison population of all. For every 1,000 crimes committed in the UK, we have about 13 prisoners, compared with about 15 in Canada and Australia, considerably more than 20 for the EU as a whole, and a whopping 166 in the United States. The country with the lowest prison rate—the UK—has the highest crime rate. Is that a coincidence? I do not think so.

We have more than 10,000 crimes for every 100,000 people. The country with the highest prison rate —the United States—has the lowest crime rate, with about 4,500 crimes for every 100,000 people. Canada, which is the country with the second lowest prison rate, has the second highest crime rate. The EU as a whole has the second highest prison rate and the second lowest crime rate. In my view, those are not coincidences.

The purpose of today’s debate is to be helpful to Her Majesty’s Government. I have come here with a constructive suggestion to make our judicial system more transparent. I thank judges and magistrates for the work that they do on behalf of us all, but they need assistance in the form of information about how effective their well-meaning sentencing decisions are. My constituents would like to see stiffer justice; they would like to see recidivist offenders put behind bars for longer, not only as a punishment but to aid their rehabilitation. I know that the Justice Minister is very sympathetic to that view because he has said so to the House. A judicial scorecard system need not be complex; it could be very simple and straightforward. Presenting each judge and each magistrate with an annual report about the effectiveness of their sentencing decisions would be a good thing for the criminal justice system in this country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and particularly to reply to your near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), whom I congratulate on securing the debate and bringing up the matter of judicial scorecards.

I have, of course, noted the question that my hon. Friend put to the Justice Secretary during oral questions about whether steps would be taken to ensure that judges and magistrates were informed of incidents of reoffending of every offender they had sentenced. As my hon. Friend has made clear, he is aiming for feedback and public transparency for individual sentencers on the effectiveness of their sentencing practices, so that they are able to identify where something is wrong with their individual approach. I have listened to my hon. Friend very carefully, with my usual level of interest, and I concur with the Justice Secretary that his suggestion is interesting.

My hon. Friend knows from previous debates we have had on foreign national prisoners that I very much welcome his interest, and his providing a spur to the system to ensure that we are kept up to the mark in areas of public interest. However, I am going to have to be reasonably plain with him here: yes, the topic is interesting, but I am unsympathetic with the particular matter of individual judicial accountability by way of scorecards for judges.

Let me explain why. We need to acknowledge that this topic raises issues of significant constitutional importance, and I want to touch on those before I address some of the other matters that my hon. Friend mentioned. We might not have quite enough time for a full debate on the whole of penal policy, the issue that he raised at the end of his remarks, but if I end up having enough time, I will cheerfully move into that area.

The rule of law is, of course, the foundation of our democracy. For that tenet to be real, it is imperative that the independence of the judiciary is maintained. As my hon. Friend will recognise, that is particularly relevant in respect of sentencing decisions. Parliament has established the offence and sentencing framework that the judiciary apply in individual cases, and the courts have a duty to follow sentencing guidelines, which are issued by the independent Sentencing Council to promote greater consistency in sentencing while maintaining judicial independence. If courts depart from those guidelines in the interest of justice, they must explain in open court why they are doing so.

Although the sentencing decisions of the judiciary are rightly independent, they do not operate in an accountability vacuum. Checks and balances within the current system, such as the right of appeal, operate within the public domain. If certain sentences are seen as too lenient, the Attorney-General can appeal them. Equally, if it is felt that the final sentence is too harsh relative to the circumstances of the case, the defendant has the right to appeal. Like the hearings at which offenders are sentenced, such appeals are heard in public. The Sentencing Council has a duty to monitor the operation of its sentencing guidelines. Part of that involves considering the frequency and extent to which those handing down sentences depart from the guidelines, the factors that influence sentences imposed by courts and the effect of guidelines on consistency in sentencing and on public confidence in the criminal justice system.

More generally, the judiciary support efforts towards greater transparency that allow the public improved access to sentencing outcomes for individual crimes in their local area while bearing in mind any reporting restrictions. However, it would not be right to draw inferences about the performance of an individual judge— or, for that matter, anyone involved in bringing a case to court—based simply on whether the defendant goes on to commit further crimes. There is a risk that, if we introduced scorecards linking sentencing to reoffending outcomes, individual sentencing decisions would be criticised because the offender went on to reoffend. The sentence handed down is only one of many factors that affect reoffending.

Towards the end of his remarks, my hon. Friend used the phrase “simple and straightforward”. I must tell him that dealing with the rehabilitation of offenders—trying to act on all the levers that affect an individual, determining how easy it will be to rehabilitate him and considering all the desistance factors from crime—is far from simple and straightforward, and it does not simply involve the sentencing decision. The judiciary work in an environment where no two cases are alike and each sentence reflects individual circumstances unique to the offence, the defendant and the impact on the victim. Examining sentences in isolation from the particular circumstances of the case and the defendant’s mitigating or aggravating factors is almost certain to confuse those who were not present in the courtroom about why the final sentence was imposed. Many factors affect the effectiveness of a specific sentence in preventing reoffending. Some are unique to the individual; some are socio-economic. Given the unique nature of each case, it would be impossible for the effectiveness of sentences on reoffending to be deduced in a meaningful way. Any suggestion that such information could be provided would be misleading to the public.

My hon. Friend knows that tackling reoffending is a major priority for this Government. We are considering innovative ways to decrease reoffending rates. The Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle” set out a different approach to rehabilitation based on paying only for what works to deliver reduced levels of crime. Although I am sure that judges would welcome being informed of what happens to each defendant sentenced, if such a practice became regulated in the form that my hon. Friend suggests, it would be prohibitively expensive to administer and might well take resource away from the front line, particularly the probation service.

That said, judges and magistrates take a close interest in the outcome of the sentences that they pass and whether defendants go on to commit further offences. I suspect that, like me and no doubt you, Mr Bone, my hon. Friend welcomed the statements made by the recorder of Manchester during the recent trial of Regina v. Carter, when he was sentencing one of the earliest people to be brought to justice for the riots. In the robust terms of his sentence, the recorder made it clear in what peril people placed themselves by their outrageous behaviour in those circumstances. If my hon. Friend has had the chance to read it, he will have noted that, at the end of the judgment against one defendant in the trial, who was sentenced to oversight in the community, the recorder of Manchester reserved to himself the right to deal with breaches of that community supervision. He took the opportunity judicially to take a keen interest in how that defendant, who will be supervised by the probation service, got on.

That can happen in our system. It happens in the west London drugs court, for example, where repeat offenders who entered the system because of their addiction are brought back month by month to the same judge, as part of their sentence oversight, to see how they are getting on. It is possible within our system for judges to continue to exercise supervision of and interest in the people who come before them. Probation officers, also, often provide the courts with general information about outcomes, especially in relation to community orders, so that any judge or bench can make informed decisions about the suitability of a particular sentence for the offender before them.

In May this year, my Department published details of the relative effectiveness of different sentences in reducing reoffending. One can interpret such data in different ways, but those data showed that, after controlling for differences between offenders, those receiving community orders and suspended sentence orders have a significantly lower reoffending rate—8% and 9% lower respectively—than similar offenders who receive a short custodial sentence. My hon. Friend may say, “Indeed; then they should get a longer prison sentence rather than a short prison sentence or a community sentence”, but we must have some regard to the circumstances of the offence. He seems to be driving at the idea that first-time offenders should receive an exemplary sentence in order to get them into prison so that they can be rehabilitated. I am not sure that I am in precisely the same place as him on that matter. Overall, most people entering the justice system for the first time and receiving community sentences will have a significantly lower reoffending rate than other repeat offenders. We must find proper strategies, including prison at one level but also proper supervision between prisons, the probation service and the police, as is delivered through integrated offender management, in order to find a more effective route to desistance for such people. We are experimenting with a bunch of different pilots to see where to place the responsibility in order to deliver rehabilitation.

I think that my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that the Government also have a significant transparency agenda, which will go some way towards meeting the concerns that underlie his case. We are committed to increasing transparency in public services in order better to hold public services to account, increase trust in services through greater openness and encourage engagement between citizens and local services. The criminal justice system is no exception. Criminal cases are almost always held in public, and a great deal of information on court proceedings is already placed in the public domain.

However, we recognise that not everyone goes to their local court on a daily basis, so we are planning a significant release of individual court performance data in January that will enable local communities to find out how their local court is performing on a range of measures. The data will include, among other things, information on case timeliness in criminal and civil courts and the proportion of cracked and ineffective trials at the Crown court. That represents a significant step towards keeping the public informed of how the courts are operating in their area. When looking at the data, it will be important to bear in mind that courts’ performance is not a matter for the judiciary or court staff alone, but depends on all the elements of the criminal justice system.

Yesterday, the Justice Secretary announced his intention to legislate to remove the ban on cameras in courts. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome of that announcement. It is a cautious but important step that, taken with the data commitments, will open up the courts more widely. In addition to the data that we plan to publish on court performance, we have taken several other notable steps to provide the public with information on how the criminal justice system works locally. In October last year, we released court-level sentencing data for each court for 2009, and in May this year, we released data covering 2005 to 2010. In January this year, street-level crime information was made available to the public via the website. It has been very popular, with 430 million hits on the site since the launch. In November, we will publish individual offender-level sentencing data by court, so that the public will be able—

Sitting suspended.