On the 25th of August 2011 during the policing section of the West Central Area committee I took the opportunity to draw councillors’ attention to the expansion in the range of offences which Cambridgeshire Police consider can now be dealt with, outside of court, through “restorative justice”. I also pointed out that Cambridgeshire police’s released written framework setting out the criteria for the use of restorative justice permits its application for a very much broader range of offences and circumstances than those in which the police have been publicly saying they will use restorative justice in relation to. I think this is dishonest, disingenuous, and risks damaging public confidence in the police and creating confusion as to how the police are operating.
I am in favour of giving police constables the powers they need to do their jobs and to allow them to use their discretion. However they must operate within clear boundaries. I don’t think it benefits anyone for the police to seek to give the public the impression those limits are more restrictive than they actually are under the force’s policy. I support a “no surprises” approach to policing, and if the overwhelming thrust of the output from the police suggests restorative justice is to be used for minor offences victims of serious crime may be surprised to see the route being considered for those who’ve perpetrated crimes against them. I think it’s important that there is openness and honesty from the police in what they are doing; particularly in the interests of maintaining policing by consent and enabling people, including elected representatives and candidates, to comment on policing from an informed position.
The West Central Area Committee’s chair, Cllr Julie Smith (Newnham, Liberal Democrat) initially sought to stop and dismiss my contribution on the grounds of it being outside the scope of what she thought the committee should be considering. I strongly disagree with this and think that the area committee meetings ought be an opportunity to raise points about all aspects of policing. Councillors typically restrict themselves to pointing out geographical areas where there are problems, or highlighting particular types of crime they would like the police to focus on. I think that councillors should take a broader view and comment on, and be prepared to set priorities in relation to, policing policy as it affects those they represent.
Cllrs Bick and Brooks-Gordon objected to Cllr Smith’s attempt to rule my contribution out of order and said they would like to comment on it. Cllr Smith backed down.
Cllr Brooks-Gordon tried to shout me down, claiming I was inaccurate in saying that Cambridgeshire Police’s use of restorative justice means people are dealt with summarily by police officers and not being dealt with through the due process of the courts. Cllr Brooks-Gordon said she supported the use of restorative justice on the grounds there was evidence that it reduces reoffending.
However the academic, scientific, evidence that restorative justice can reduce reoffending is based on an application of restorative justice that is quite different to the scheme in operation in Cambridgeshire. What has been shown to be effective is restorative meetings between offenders and victims after conviction or the acceptance of a caution as part of a programme of rehabilitation. In Cambridgeshire restorative justice is being used by the police as means of “disposing” cases preferably very quickly; Chief Constable Simon Parr has been quoted in the Hunts Post as saying:
Restorative justice offers our staff a means of dealing with that action within an hour.
Certainly the application of restorative justice in Cambridgeshire is done without recourse to the courts; it is being used as a form of summary justice.
Instant summary justice handed out by the police acting alone and offenders meeting their victims after having been dealt with conventionally by the criminal justice system are two very different things which share the name “Restorative Justice”. There are quite a wide range of schemes which can come under the restorative justice banner. I think Cllr Brooks-Gordon had not grasped the way in which Cambridgeshire Police have been using, and are planning to massively extend the use of, restorative justice. I hope she will apologise at the next West/Central area committee for her hectoring and ill-informed contribution.
Cllr Bick, who is the executive councillor with responsibility for policing and according to questioning from Labour members at the last full council meeting is seeking the Liberal Democrat nomination to stand as Police Commissioner on the other hand said that he appreciated an important point was being made which he would be willing to take to the Community Safety Partnership. After the meeting Cllr Bick commendably wrote to me to ask me to give him a copy of my question in writing; one purpose of this article is to provide a response to Cllr Bick’s request.
Unelected appointee to the Police Authority, Ruth Joyce, was also present at the meeting. She was sitting the public seating and did not introduce herself; I pointed out her presence. She made no comment on restorative justice.
Expansion in Restorative Justice Mentioned to Police Authority
One of the most significant things “noted” by the authority was a massive expansion in the range of circumstances in which Cambridgeshire Police are using Restorative Justice. The authority didn’t debate this large, clearly strategic, change in the way Cambridgeshire is to be policed. They weren’t being asked to approve or authorise it – they were just being asked to note it in retrospect. I think this shows how the Police Authority is being ignored, and isn’t up to its job; it should be taking the lead on determining the force’s strategy, not simply being told about what’s changed after the fact.
The section in the meeting papers on Restorative Justice amounts only to two short paragraphs (4.9 and 4.10) of the report on “Operation Redesign”, the programme of change introduced by the Chief Constable, Simon Parr, when he took on the job.
The written report noted that two thirds of the force’s constables and PCSOs had been trained in the administration of Restorative Justice and that it had been used 146 times. It also described briefly how restorative justice is used in Cambridgeshire saying it: “provides an alternative to the traditional process of arrest and punishment”. Assistant Chief Constable Feavyour stated that Restorative Justice “Can avoid the criminal justice bureaucracy”. An oral update from Assistant Chief Constable Hopkins stated the figure of “146” was out dated and the number was by that point much higher, he also reported that the force had “just agreed new offences” which could be dealt with via restorative justice. The list of “new offences”, described as the “restorative justice framework” was not reported to the Police Authority, so I made a freedom of information request for it.
The FOI response revealed that prior to the change the only offences considered for Restorative Justice in Cambridgeshire were:
- Theft to the value of £50 (except vehicle related).
- Criminal damage under £100.
- Minor common assault (non domestic) and public order.
The massive expansion has extended the number of offences enormously, the huge number of offences which can now be dealt with by restorative justice outside of court have been listed in a six page PDF released by Cambridgeshire Police. The previous caps have been raised, or removed, and the limitation to minor offences has also been scrapped. Offences now covered include false accounting, taking a vehicle without consent, to driving without L plates and even careless and inconsiderate driving.
Examples of the use of restorative justice quoted by Cambridgeshire Police to the public through the media have though been only in relation to minor offences, for example Cambridgeshire’s Inspector Human quoted the following examples to the BBC :
A 16-year-old shoplifter who stole goods to the value of £3 had to clean 100 shopping baskets and a 12-year-old who caused £75 worth of damage to a car had to send a written apology, and the parents paid for damage.
Examples cited alongside an interview on restorative justice with Chief Constable Parr in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph included:
- A 20-year-old shoplifter stole £15 of items from a Huntingdon shop and in return swept the aisles of the shop for an hour.
- An adult was caught shoplifting but apologised and did 30 minutes work.
Cambridgeshire Police’s webpage penalties contains a section on “Community Resolution” which appears not to have been updated to reflect the increase in types of offences dealt with via the scheme states:
This is a pre-court, victim-focussed outcome for low-level crime, for example, a smashed window, whereby the offender is given the opportunity to make amends for the harm that they have caused as an alternative to formal action e.g. prosecution.
Community resolution is based on the principles of restorative justice. The victim will be at the heart of the process and will be instrumental in deciding how the offender can undo the harm that they have caused.
Examples of crimes suitable for community resolution are local crimes such as theft (under £100), criminal damage (under £300), common assault and minor public order offences.
It is clear to me that the impression being given to the public is that only minor offences are being considered for “disposal” via restorative justice, whereas the force’s framework allows its application in quite serious cases.
One example of restorative justice being used in North Cambridge has been shared via the Ecops email system, this revealed that it was being used for someone who’d admitted to committing multiple offences of thefts from motor vehicles. This came after an assurance to the North Area committee that restorative justice would only be used for individuals’ first offences.
There is nothing in the released framework document which limits the use of restorative justice to first offences. This shows that not only does the framework allow for the application of restorative justice in more serious cases than the impression the police are cultivating suggests, but that that the police are actually using for dealing with repeat offenders.
Questions I’d like Answered
I raised a series of questions about Cambridgeshire police’s use of restorative justice at the May 2011 North Area Committee in Cambridge. I still have not had answers, though following my contribution a constabulary presentation on restorative justice has been made available to councillors and I have made a FOI request for a copy. The questions included:
- Where the “victim” is the community as a whole (or there isn’t an identifiable victim) with whom will restorative justice penalties be agreed?
- What records of restorative justice being used are kept, will courts find out if someone in-front of them has been dealt with via restorative justice in the past?
- What safeguards are their to ensure the scheme doesn’t encourage more innocent people to “plead guilty” to offences
I think we need to distinguish between the use of restorative justice as a form of police imposed summary justice avoiding the due process of the courts from
the use of restorative justice in institutions such as schools and young people’s residential homes or restorative justice as part of the rehabilitation of those who’ve been convicted off offences. It is the increased use by the police to dispense summary justice which I am concerned with.
I think it is entirely right that sometimes, as in the example of a young child stealing from a relative’s house, an arrest and prosecution in the courts is not the course of action followed on the grounds it is unlikely to be in anyone’s interest. In these cases I can see that no formal police action may be necessary and if the family think it appropriate a warning from a police officer about the potential future consequences of repeat behaviour might, depending on the circumstances, be a proportional and reasonable action. I’m concerned that restorative justice is being applied in such cases as a result of the police being overly focused on paperwork and statistics and seeking a “disposal”, a formal conclusion for as many reported crimes as possible. I think we need to be more intelligent with the way we look at police statistics and police reporting and ensure that the way we assess the performance of the police doesn’t prompt them to behave in a bizarre manner which only makes sense on paper.
I think what we really need to do is improve the courts, make them simpler, faster. We also need to free the police to be able to say there’s nothing for them to do in relation to a particular case, we need to encourage, enable and empower officers to use their decision to take no formal action when they feel that’s appropriate. In many cases I’d much rather the police did nothing when a situation didn’t warrant a formal sanction (arrest, caution, fixed penalty etc.) than starting to negotiate a minor punishment on the spot between the accused and the victim.
Police officers acting alone issuing arbitrary punishments is something which worries me; where’s the transparency, the oversight, the safeguards? That an accused person has to accept their guilt and agree to the proposed punishment / redress isn’t much of a safeguard as people offered that option will have an interest in avoiding a police record, an arrest, or a fine.
I do think restorative justice, applied in the way Cambridgeshire Police policy now permits, will be a soft touch for fraudsters, thieves and other criminals. Not only will they be let off lightly for the first offence they’re caught for, if they find themselves in court for a future offence magistrates or the judge might not be aware of what they’ve done before.
I think restorative justice has its place; in fact I think it has many places where its principles can be usefully applied, however I am uncomfortable with Cambridgeshire Police’s current policies and degree to which they’re being open about what they’re doing.
- Cambridge News article on the expansion in Cambridgeshire police’s use of restorative justice.
- A paper on restorative justice, providing an update on its implementation in Cambridgeshire was published on the 5th of September in advance of a Police Authority Scrutiny Committee meeting to be held on the 12th of September. (This suggests the released framework may have been incomplete).