05:35, September 08 407 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-08 05:35:03
Chief prosecutor backs Lammy plan to tackle justice system bias

The UK’s chief prosecutor has said a scheme to defer some prosecutions without the accused having to admit their guilt should be considered, after a report highlighted racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, approved of a recommendation by the report’s author, David Lammy, to offer some first-time offenders the chance to go on rehabilitation programmes rather than face trial. Lammy has said this would help tackle racial disparities in the system.

“We do something similar already with conditional cautions, but there, people have admitted their guilt and, when we do that, they go through programmes [such as] anger management, maybe drugs or alcohol rehabilitation,” Saunders told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“The difference in this would be the prosecution is deferred because nobody has admitted guilt. It’s a really good thing to have a look at.”

Lammy’s proposal is for a deferment system that has been piloted in the West Midlands to be rolled out across England and Wales. First-time offenders accused of lesser crimes are given the option of completing a rehabilitation programme, and those who complete the programme have their charges dropped. The pilot scheme found this led to lower reoffending rates.

Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, has proposed that this option be made available to anyone – of any background – who meets the criteria, but he believes it would be likely to lessen the racial divide in the justice system because it would apply before a plea is entered.

He said black and minority ethnic (BAME) people had been found to be more likely to plead not guilty to secure a jury trial than white people. He said many felt a jury trial would be fairer to them than an appearance before a magistrate. As a result, BAME people were exposed to a greater risk of the harsher sentences usually imposed on those who plead not guilty.

Conviction rates

Saunders, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), cautioned that any implementation of the system would need to consider the risks of encouraging innocent people to take part in order to avoid having to face a trial. And she said the decision would be for the government, not the CPS.

“But I think that’s worth looking at, and if we can in these types of offending – and particularly where it’s first-time offending – if we can then divert them away from the court system and divert them away from the behaviours, then that’s all to the good of everyone.

“It’s not for me to introduce, it’s for the government but it’s certainly something that we will be looking at with them and is of interest because it’s very much in our interests – although I probably shouldn’t say this – not to have as many prosecutions as we do have. So if we can divert people away from offending then that’s all to the good.”

Saunders also agreed it was worth looking at Lammy’s proposal that prosecutors should make charging decisions without knowing the racial background of the suspect, though she noted that redaction of that information would not be possible in many cases.

“There are some issues to look at with the race-blind decision making. I think, in principle, it’s a really good idea. Some cases rely on identification, so you need to have those details.

“If you have an identification issue – [where] it depends on who it was who attacked you and you need to describe them – that pretty much tells you their racial background, perhaps. So you would need those details.”