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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Six Forum: UK Justice American Style?
Crime and security expert Charles Shoebridge answered your questions in the Six Forum.

Home Secretary David Blunkett announced today that Liverpool will get a US-style justice centre.

As in America, the Liverpool court will be able to hand out sentences for low-level crimes and address particular local disorder problems.

Blunkett has also appointed of a former US police chief to head the UK Police Standards Unit, the department which aims to improve the performance of forces in England and Wales.

On Tuesday Mr Blunkett told a meeting of the 43 chief constables of England and Wales that he wants the next stage of reform to bring more local involvement in policing.

Will American models of crime fighting work in the UK? Can local courts centres make a difference?

Your put your questions to crime and security expert Charles Shoebridge in the Six Forum presented by Manisha Tank.


Manisha Tank:

Hello and welcome to the Six Forum with me, Manisha Tank. The Justice system is about to get the American treatment in a new initiative by Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to tackle local disorder problems. Liverpool, for example, is to get a US-style justice centre and, as in America, the Liverpool court will be able to hand out sentences for low-level crime.

At the national level meanwhile, the former US police chief has appointed to head the UK Police Standards Unit. So will justice, US-style, actually work here? Joining me is Charles Shoebridge an expert on crime and security.

We'll begin with an e-mail that we've received from the US, this is from Chris Wood: How can Mr Blunkett expect an American-style justice system to work in Liverpool when it doesn't even work in the United States? As a British citizen living in the US, I'm deeply concerned that England will try to emulate any aspects of the American criminal justice system - it's deeply, deeply flawed.

Charles Shoebridge:

There are aspects of the American system, as there are with any system, which I think could cause concern, particularly accountability which perhaps we will come onto later. And also, for example, issues of corruption and issues of perhaps the adversarial nature of policing in America which is quite different to the United Kingdom.

But it's also true to say that there are lessons to be learned as well. It is a fact that crime has been significantly reduced in certain of the United States cities and I think it's probably very worthwhile to actually look - as the Government is and indeed the Opposition too - at methods that are used elsewhere and those that are successful, let's take them on board here.

I think the problem is that the Government seems to be, to some degree, cherry-picking - it's taking certain ideas, such as a justice centre, whereas the Americans have resolved to some degree their problems in the cities by very much a holistic approach. In other words, they've tackled the problem from a multi-agency aspect and that has involved changes to the entire criminal justice system which isn't really what's happening here.

Manisha Tank:

The other side of this is not just this centre in Liverpool, there's also the fact that a former US police is going to head up the Police Standards Council. KH has written to us from Canada and asks: Can an American really solve the problems of Britain's crime?

You've already talked about cherry-picking there - but having a man in charge, do you think that's going to work?

Charles Shoebridge:

The Police Standards Unit, which this man is going to head, it isn't actually in charge of policing. What the standards unit, is designed to do is pick up best practice, disseminate that practice to other forces and really make sure that forces have the best ideas at their disposal.

But there is a question I think very much of whether somebody from a policing and indeed any culture that is outside our own, can come in and hope to understand the nature of the problems that we're facing and also propose solutions that will be compatible with our culture. Now clearly he is going to have many advisers and helpers and experts helping him with this.

So that is one aspect. But then on the other side you would say it actually is quite often a good idea to take a fresh approach. In other words, somebody comes in from outside, as often happens in business with management consultants of course, they come in from the outside, they have fresh ideas, a clear vision and they're not interrupted in their thoughts of local politics and so on. So in many ways it's a double-edged sword and it certainly is in line with the Government's idea to introduce clear and fresh thinking.

Manisha Tank:

I'm glad you mentioned the management consultants because that was a big trend in business over the last decade or so. On the other side of that there were lots of people who said, well sometimes that objective way of looking at things is not looking necessarily at people but looking at the numbers, for example, can be very blind and it can lead to its own problems.

Also there's the issue of culture here - there's a different culture of crime here, as were. We've got a interesting e-mail just in from Darren in the north of England who says: We send our top police officers to Iraq to run a basically third world police force and bring a former US police chief to the UK to put our legal system in order, that just about sums up where this country is headed - he says, under Tony Blair - obviously that's his personal opinion of this Government whatever its issues are. But there is this interesting idea about culture and whether there's a culture of crime or not that's very different to the United States.

Charles Shoebridge:

It is clearly different - our society is different and indeed just as different from, for example, European forces. The history of law enforcement is extremely different in America and the United Kingdom. I must admit this e-mail strike a chord in me to some degree to this extent - for example, the commissioner of the metropolitan police, he has a wide portfolio of overseas roles where he is, for example, an advisor to the Romanian government and the Bulgarian government and his duties frequently take him to these parts of the world. And - this isn't a personal criticism of him - of course it's a criticism of our system, that when we clearly have so many problems at home with our own criminal justice system - although Scotland Yard and its experience and expertise is very much in demand throughout the world, shouldn't we surely be concentrating the resources we have on solving our own problems, rather than telling so many other countries in the world, as we are, about immigration and about crime issues.

Manisha Tank:

Let's bring it down now to the local issues and a lot of this is about local disorder and the fact that we have huge problems in this problem with this. Gaz writes in - he's originally from the UK, now in the US - and says, as soon as you localise justice courts or police you get massive corruption. People get office through nepotism and money - arrests are made through bigotry and prejudice. This is the US system - do we really want it here?

Do you really think it could descend into that?

Charles Shoebridge:

Well of course, local democracy and local accountability for police is a very attractive in theory and I think if it's thought through properly, with proper safeguards put in place, it could be attractive practically too.

My feeling is that it hasn't been thought through properly at this particular stage - both the Government and even more so the Opposition are calling for the devolution of power over the police to local authorities. But if you think of a few examples, you begin to wonder if that's such a good idea. For example, if the Conservatives can think back to, for example, the 1980s when we had, for example, extremely left-wing local authorities - now would we really want those authorities to be in charge of the local policing of their area?

On the other hand, we may, for example, at some point in the future have in some areas the British National Party, let's say, who have local responsibility and local control through elections. Would you want those people in charge of policing? I suspect you wouldn't and I don't think this is something that has been thought through properly where you've got a police force that is loyal to ideals rather than to local politicians.

Another aspect of course which you have in the United States, is elected police chiefs, elected attorneys and again that means very much that the police and the justice authorities are very much beholden to what are seen as local popular demands. Whereas often it's the case that what is popular isn't necessarily the right thing to do.

Manisha Tank:

That obviously that brings up the relationship between local police and the actual citizens living in that area. Kerry Johnson wrote to us from Canada pointing this out. He says, in fact the models of crime fighting used in the US has been ineffective, especially against violent crime in particular. Despite the local involvement, it also tends to create a more adversarial relationship between police and citizens. Why therefore was a US model chosen rather than drawing ideas from other countries where crime is lower and public empathy and support for the police is higher?

Charles Shoebridge:

Well I think the Home Office would answer that by saying that we're taking best practice from all over the world and certainly, for example, the head of the Police Standards Unit was selected from a very wide field of candidates not just from the United Kingdom. There is a question of the styles of policing that we touched on earlier. Much has been said that we could benefit from zero-tolerance policing and I happen to agree with that. The problem is that the way that zero-tolerance policing has been carried out in the United States has led, arguably, to a deterioration in police community relations, particularly amongst certain ethnic minorities who seem to be targeted more by the police - or at least that's the argument put forward.

If we have zero-tolerance policing, which is an integral part of this American package that we are talking about - it isn't just being soft on some offenders, it also means arresting an awful lot of people - we can expect problems with community relations that we are getting a grip of here but which, in the United States, still cause problems. So it's not a panacea by any means. The other aspect that I think isn't really attracting sufficient attention is that we mentioned cherry-picking - the reason this American system works within the cities in reducing crime is because it's a holistic approach. It isn't just saying, ok, we're going to have a community court, it isn't just saying, we're going to have zero-tolerance policing. It also says, for example, that the penalties if you don't go along with these community sentences will be tough and severe - it's called tough love. We simply don't have the prison spaces in this country to accommodate those people who are committing those people who are committing these low-level types of crime who choose not to go along with these community sentences.

Another aspect is if there's no stick as well as carrot, then the people who are, for example, these community sentences are being given advice on how to apply for jobs, they are being help with housing - there's an argument very strongly, I think that that is rewarding those who commit crime. Because let's no forget 90% of the people, roughly speaking, who are living in these poverty-stricken, very desperate circumstances on some of our estates and in the United States, are not committing crime.

Manisha Tank:

That leads us on to another fantastic point that was made by Paul Chorley in his e-mail and says: We all know that poverty is the root cause of low-level crime. So let's put our efforts into raising the standard of living in these areas instead of further excluding sections of our society by making the label of criminal easier to hand out.

Charles Shoebridge:

I think it's too easy to say in a sweeping statement that poverty is the cause of crime. There's no doubt that social factors have an influence on criminality. But I would just point out two examples that perhaps have been used before but perhaps should be referred to more often. Again from my own experience of policing on the streets, the vast majority of people who live in exactly the same deprived circumstances do not commit crime and therefore poverty cannot be the driving factor in crime.

Also if we look back many years, for example, when my father was being brought up in the 1920s in south east London - chronic poverty that was far worse than anything in the United Kingdom that people face today and yet crime was considerably lower. So therefore we cannot say that poverty alone is a major driving factor in criminality.

Manisha Tank:

We're going to run out of time soon. So I want to get onto the issue of the actual sentencing and the court idea. We've had an e-mail in from Mark in London who says: All people should safe and have equal access to justice. I think local courts are a positive idea.

With that Nick Stokes wrote in and said: I though magistrates courts already serve the same purpose. And an interested JP wrote to us and said: Who's going to be running these justice centres?

Charles Shoebridge:

Well I suspect the justice centre will be run by an administrator because it contains several different functions, including social services, housing, debt relief, drugs rehabilitation, probation officers and of course the courts. So of course each department, I'm sure, will still be in charge of its separate function. But I think on the whole so long as the holistic approach is adopted - in other words, there are punishments that are seen to be punishments, not just as often is the case where people are sent for low-level crime on computer training or vehicle training courses. In the United States people are made to clean up the community, they are required to do work for the community which is seen as punishment. If all of this happens, these criminal justice centres have really got to be a good idea, in that you've got everything under one roof, you've got people getting instance justice, hopefully, but the funding has to be there to make sure not just the people and the offices are in place and the building looks very nice and is very modern, but also prison places are there, the resources are there - all the issues which need to be dealt with in our current system.

Manisha Tank:

Well the Government says its spending 3 million for this centre in Liverpool, so we'll see how far that goes. We have to wrap it up there though. Charles Shoebridge thanks so much for joining us again on the forum. That's it for this forum. Goodbye.

Liverpool gets US-style local court
10 Sep 03  |  Politics

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