A recent Panorama episode on the BBC “Tough Justice in Britain: Texas Style” gave a fascinating insight into Texas’ criminal justice revolution, where the traditional “hard on crime, hard on sentencing” view is a thing of the past. It was claimed that this revolution had led to the shutting of prisons due to crime rates reducing significantly. The success is based on, in part, the development of specialist courts, zero tolerance on drugs and alcohol, provision of therapy, and a problem solving approach to sentencing, rather than punishment. We were introduced to “Judge Bobby Francis” who, in Dallas County, runs such a court. He, himself, a Conservative Republican, claims 8 out of 10 defendants that pass through his courts “graduate”. Interestingly, he also described taking a “father figure” approach towards the defendants.
I learned of our own Justice Minister, Michael Gove travelling to Texas to learn the secrets of their success. Keen to rid the UK of its claim of having the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe and ½ of prisoners going on to reoffend upon release. He suggested he wanted to introduce specialist courts with a problem solving approach.
In my experience as a criminal defence advocate, I was disappointed to discover that the Justice Secretary had clearly not done his homework. In Liverpool, where I practice, 2005 saw the introduction of the Community Justice Centre, the brainchild of David Blunkett. This was a “problem solving” court where a multi agency approach was taken to sentencing defendants, much like Judge Bobby’s court in Texas. Whilst this court still runs, it has now been moved to a different shared court premises, and no longer has on site access to the agencies it did before. The main reason for this seems to be the results did not justify the cost.
So, whilst I agree with Michael Gove’s aims, the ideas are not new. Perhaps his time would have been better spent researching his own jurisdiction rather than further afield. The CJC was downscaled due to its expense. The Dallas initiatives worked due to investment as money set aside to build new prisons was used to set up the new courts. In the UK there is no money set aside. I personally don’t think that transforming prisoners from liabilities to assets can be done on the cheap? I would also be keen to learn the views of our Crown Court Judges on becoming “father figures” to the defendants the sentence.