Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Pledge Watch: Community courts

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing new initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...

Police talking to youths
"Misery crimes" like vandalism and petty theft have been targeted

In the early 1990s the then shadow home secretary, Tony Blair, promised Labour would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

There was to be an emphasis on tackling minor offences before those breaking the law - particularly young people - moved on to more serious misdemeanours.

Making acts like vandalism and petty theft morally unacceptable was to be part of the deterrent.

Almost a decade later, one of Mr Blair's closest allies, Home Secretary David Blunkett, announced that US-style "community courts" would be introduced in England and Wales.

'Very distressing'

In a speech to an international criminal justice conference in London in July 2003 , he said: "People's lives are blighted by the crime in their neighbourhood and they can feel powerless to do anything about it.

"Graffiti, criminal damage and car crime are not the most serious crimes but they can be very distressing and can leave a lasting mark on people's enjoyment of their community.

"I want ordinary people to feel they are involved in beating crime and meting out punishment to offenders. For people to have confidence in the system they must feel it works on their behalf, is accountable to them and that they are connected to it."

David Fletcher
David Fletcher was chosen to run the first community court

Based on a system pioneered in New York, community courts were to employ a single judge overseeing cases involving "misery crime", such as graffiti, petty theft and vandalism.

As well as normal prison terms, the judge was to hand out community sentences, ensuring offenders made "amends" to the neighbourhood, such as cleaning up playgrounds or picking up rubbish.

They could recommend help, such as drug or alcohol counselling, to prevent people from moving on to more serious criminality.

Judges would also carry out progress checks, to see whether offenders were improving their behaviour as result of their punishment.

They were to become known faces in the community - like a police officer on the beat - winning trust and respect for the justice system.

It was to be "tough love" personified.

So, did community courts ever happen?

'Selfish minority'

Yes, although they are still some way from becoming a national scheme.

In September 2003, the government announced that Liverpool was to pilot the first "US-style Community Justice Centre".

Mr Blunkett said it would aid the "fight against the selfish minority whose loutish and criminal behaviour is impairing [people's] quality of life".


Ministers talk a lot about them but have dragged their feet

David Howarth, Liberal Democrats

The 4.2m centre, on the former site of a school in the north of the city, was to supply drug treatment, debt counselling, family and parenting support and education and training.

Police, a probation office and the Crown Prosecution Service would be based in the building, providing a "one-stop shop for justice".

Judge David Fletcher was appointed to run the court, which officially opened in 2005.

A second pilot soon followed in Eccles, Greater Manchester.

'Active role'

In March 2006, the then constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman announced that community court judges would get more powers to deal with offenders sentenced to community service.

They would be able to play an "active role" in rehabilitation by referring people directly to other services based within the same building, such as drugs counselling or housing advice.

In its first year the north Liverpool centre heard 1,100 adult cases and 300 youth cases.

Mr Fletcher ordered offenders to carry out 3,231 hours - nearly 135 days - of community service.

In November 2006 the government decided that a further 10 community courts would open.

A month later it introduced the "community impact statement".

Sentencing

Piloted at the Salford court, this allows community groups such as residents' associations to advise the judge on the effect a particular type of crime - like graffiti or car theft - is having on their area.

This can be taken into account when sentencing takes place.

The government also said it would allow the community to decide what sort of unpaid work offenders should carry out.

This is justice being seen to be done, ministers say.

The impact of the Liverpool court, according to the government, has been impressive - but a Ministry of Justice survey published last year said there had been a "drop in confidence" in the justice system.

It found the time between a first hearing and sentencing was 26 days on average, almost six times faster than the national average of 147 days.

But 64% of those who took part in the Ministry of Justice's survey said they lacked confidence in the criminal justice system, compared with 62% before the court opened.

Evaluation

However, the Labour government argues that the project is a long-term one and its success will be judged over many years.

A Conservative spokeswoman said the party was reserving judgement until the pilot schemes had been fully assessed.

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth told the BBC: "By bringing criminal justice and social services together under one roof, community courts have made it possible to properly follow through an offender's rehabilitation.

"Ministers talk a lot about them but have dragged their feet in properly evaluating them and in rolling them out across the country."

The word from Whitehall, though, is that, with 12 community courts set up, the scheme is working well.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "This achievement is testament to the government's commitment to bringing justice closer to the community and making sure justice is done and seen to be done."

It may still be in the pilot stages five years after Mr Blunkett issued his pledge, but there seems to be no dimming of enthusiasm for community courts.


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