ANALYSIS: ‘They see the judge as being very fair to them. Even when he’s locking them up which he tries not to. This is the first court I have ever worked in when he’s locked a young person up and that person has gone out and said: “Thank you judge.” And that is because he’s explained the reason why he’s had to lock them up… he’s courteous, he doesn’t look down on them.’
It might well that whether an offender feels they are being treated fairly or not is not high on the list of what many law-abiding taxpayers want out of the criminal justice system. However, it is a striking observation and one that sums up what remains unique about the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre, writes Jon Robins.
The Ministry of Justice recently released the latest statistics about the impact – or lack thereof – of the pioneering court on its community (HERE). In this age of austerity, it reads like another nail in its coffin.
The North Liverpool Community Justice Centre (NLCJC) opened in September 2005. It brought together a magistrates’, youth and Crown court with the full suite of criminal justice agencies and problem-solving services, such as drug and alcohol services, under the roof of a reconditioned former secondary school on Boundary Lane in Kirkdale. The idea was for a one-stop-shop for tackling offending in the local area.
This month’s report from the MoJ attempts to measure the impact of the court on re-offending. It pulls no punches. ‘There was no evidence that the NLCJC had a positive impact on re-offending for any particular type of offender, according to age, gender, disposal or index offence,’ it concludes. The analysis went on to suggest that offenders given court orders were ‘more likely to breach the conditions of their order’. On the plus side, the NLCJC did show some positive results in terms of increased efficiency – there was ‘an indication that the time from offence to conviction was shorter than the national average’ (although this was ‘not statistically significant’) and fewer hearings per case at the NLCJC went to trial compared to the national average.
This was the fourth study of the NLCJC – the last in 2009 found the NLCJC together with a Salford initiative had little impact on reconviction rates. The Liverpool court was modeled on the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn reckoned to be the first ‘multi-jurisdictional’ community court in the US.
The UK vision of ‘community justice centres’ was set out in a 2003 white paper (Respect and Responsibility–taking a stand against antisocial behaviour, Home Office PDF). The idea was to ‘improve links between the community and the delivery of justice’. ‘The pilots would be able to deal with all low-level disorder offences, housing related matters, especially those relevant to tackling antisocial behaviour. Those who adjudicate would receive specialist training.’
The aim was to ‘facilitate better liaison and communication with the courts’, reducing delays in the listing of cases and producing more consistent breach sentencing ‘due to increased awareness of local issues and the impact of antisocial behaviour’. ‘They would also give us access to alternatives to custody such as treatment of drug misuse, debt counselling, reparation to the community with immediate commencement,’ the white paper stated.
The court was launched with a cost of £5.2 million covering four local authority wards (Anfield, County, Everton and Kirkdale) with a combined population of around 65,000. Its NCLJC are:
‘Prophet without honour’
NLCJC represents a very particular idea of ‘community justice’ that bears little relation to what police minister Nick Herbert meant when he invoked the notion earlier this month. ‘I want to find new ways to ensure that magistrates remain at the heart of community justice,’ he said at a Policy Exchange event this month to launch his Swift and Sure Justice white paper. ‘So we are proposing to allow single magistrates to sit outside of courts, for instance in community centres, to dispense rapid and effective justice in low-level, uncontested cases.’ Any talk of ‘community justice’ now needs to be understood in the context of a government court closure program which will see some 150 courts in England and Wales shut down.
‘Whilst they are quite keen on the rhetoric of community justice, they’re not keen on pursuing it in the way that it should be pursued,’ reflects Professor George Mair of Liverpool John Moores University. The quote at the beginning of the article comes from a 2011 report (Doing Justice Locally, published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies PDF), Prof Mair co-wrote with Dr Matthew Millings. Whilst there have been a number of community justice initiatives sand specialist courts set up by New Labour in the wake North Liverpool, Mair calls them ‘pathetic shadows’ of NLCJC. I interviewed the magistrates at one specialist drugs court who acknowledged that they had no training.
Prof Mair calls NLCJC ‘a prophet without honour in its own country’.
‘The court is in a strange position. On the one hand it is feted as a flagship development and staff point out that they get visitors from all over the world; while on the other there is no consistent evidence that it “works”.’
The academics concluded that it did work ‘in a general way, insofar as it has proved to be a vibrant and exciting place to work and where staff are keen to try out new approaches and have the confidence to do so’. ‘It also seems clear that into the speedy justice and witness attendance it is remarkably effective,’ they added.
A bold experiment
There is a consistent view that the statistical reviews fail to measure a bold experiment in criminal justice. ‘The reconviction studies do not tell the whole story,’ says Prof Mair. The problem with community orders is that ‘it is very hard to tell what is effective and what is not’. ‘You can get two or three different requirements with a community order. Is it the community order as a whole that’s effective? Or is it one specific requirement? Or is it the sentence review per se?’ The problem is that the MoJ might ‘use the reconviction studies and say: “Why bother?”’’, he says. Arguably, they have already done that –a 2010 MoJ green paper noted the ‘prohibitive cost’ of the centre.
‘My own view is that the way to go is to actually close down the lay magistracy completely and open a proper one-stop shop community justice centres with district judges who can get through the cases very quickly,’ Prof Mair says. Lay magistrates ‘tend to agonise more and take more time ever cases’. ‘On the one hand that is a good thing but on the other it takes more time,’ he adds.
Julie Davies, a senior lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at Edge Hill University, points out that the MoJ research fails to acknowledge the fact that the court covers ‘four distinct and diverse wards of Liverpool’. ‘There were no clearly defined objectives set making effectiveness and success difficult to measure,’ she says. ‘What might be seen as effective by the public, might not be seen so by criminal justice agencies.’
Plus, Davies says the NLCJC needs to be looked at ‘within a broader conceptualisation of re-offending’ and in particular seen in the context of cuts in public services. ‘Liverpool has arguably been a major victim of such budget constraints – a factor which must impact on recidivism,’ she says. ‘Indeed, in March 2011, Judge Fletcher stated that extensive cuts to main services, in particular drug treatment centres, would severely impact on the level of rehabilitative and reintegrative disposals.’
John Thornhill, is a magistrate based at Dale Street magistrates’ court in the centre of Liverpool and four miles down the road from the North Liverpool centre. ‘There are all sorts of problems about how you measure conviction rates,’ says Thornhill, also a former a chairman of the Magistrates Association. ‘NLJC is a positive experiment. The ideas and principles behind it are positive. But we cannot repeat it anywhere. We cannot afford it but we can take the principles.’
Judge Fletcher speaks powerfully of what he calls ‘therapeutic jurisprudence’. I visited the Liverpool court twice in 2009 and watched the judge dealing with a grim succession of offenders whose lives were blighted by drink, drugs and poverty. The judge has special sentencing review powers under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, allowing him to monitor offenders’ rehabilitation through reviews of community sentences.
For example, in one morning session he dealt with ‘Mr Evans’ and ‘Tommy’ (youths are called by first names). The former was a 47-year old chronic alcoholic and one-man crime wave with some 160 offences to his name. He appeared sober but sometimes rolled up drunk. ‘Somewhat late in life he’s become a heroin and cocaine user,’ Judge Fletcher told me later.
By contrast, Tommy was 15 years old and in breach of his court order. Fletcher had seen him in court 30 times. The judge told me he lived ‘an almost feral lifestyle’ with his mother. His major conviction to date was for assault. He beat her up.
Fletcher argued that ‘a fairly intensive supervision order’ could help turn Tommy’s life around. The issue for the judge that morning was that Tommy, at 16 years, would no longer be the responsibility of social services. He was likely to end up in a local shelter mainly used by alcoholics including Evans. Tommy, for all his problems, did not have a drink or drug problem – and such an outcome seemed shockingly inappropriate. What, I asked, Judge Fletcher could ‘therapeutic justice’ offer Tommy? ‘I think we’ve managed to keep the lid on most of the things that he has done,’ he replied. ‘I don’t think he’s going to become a really serious criminal. I have seen people his age who are big-time drug dealers.’
John Thornhill supports Fletcher’s approach and reckons the NLCJC example is followed in other ‘problem-solving’ courts in Liverpool and elsewhere. ‘Before a problem-serving court sentences it looks at what the problem is for the offender in terms of social issues. So very often we talk about the underlying cause of offender behaviour as being substance abuse; but that is not the underlying cause.’ That often comes back to issues to do with ‘welfare benefits, housing, living conditions employment etc’, Thornhill says. ‘In the problem-solving court the idea is to look at those. The defendants are asked to come back every five, six or eight weeks to talk about progress.’ That can be done ‘far less expensively than the NLCJC Centre’, Thornhill reckons.
Prof George Mair argues that many district judges with training could do a ‘perfectly reasonable’ job of the sentencing review function in North Liverpool. However as an observer of the Magistrates’ court, he says that it can be ‘just embarrassing’ watching ‘a trio of upper middle class magistrates’ trying to talk on ‘a peer basis’ to defendants. ‘The social gulf between the offender and magistrates was simply astonishing,’ he says.