Sustainable justice: creating a system fit for the future

Written by Jenni Davidson on 3 February 2017 in Inside Politics

While much of the focus in justice has been on high-profile issues with policing, there is a great deal of change going on to create a more sustainable justice system

Sustainable justice - Image credit: Holyrood

Asked if he still thinks the creation of a single Scottish police force was the right decision, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson is adamant it was: “Yes. I’m in absolutely no doubt that moving to a single force was the right thing to do in Scotland.

“The way in which matters had been taken forward with the eight legacy forces was no longer sustainable for a variety of different reasons, because we had different approaches in eight different forces. At times we were doing things eight different ways.

“We had 19 different call centres dealing with calls to the police that were using different IT systems, different payroll systems, a whole range of different ways, different uniforms.

“It was not a sustainable model and it wasn’t the way we should have been delivering policing.

“And at times some of the forces had much more limited capacity compared to some of the bigger forces that obviously had much more sophisticated capacity and had to provide support to the smaller forces as and when it was necessary.

“So there’s absolutely no doubt it was the right thing to do.”


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Key improvements under the single force that Matheson mentions are the ability to deal with major investigations, with the single force leading to a much greater level of consistency in how that is handled, so, for example, whether they’re dealing with a homicide in Glasgow or in Inverness, it will be handled in the same way.

Its major investigations team allows a much greater level of consistency in approach, and it has specialists who are dealing with these issues on a daily basis who have the skills and knowledge to be able to handle that no matter where it happens in the country.

But Matheson also acknowledges that there has been a struggle locally: “What has been a challenge has been getting the right connection at a local level with a national service and there’s no doubt when I came into the portfolio, one of the real concerns that was raised with me by MSPs, from across the chamber, was a feeling that too much of the approach by Police Scotland was being driven at a national level rather than recognising local demand and local circumstance.”

However, he is confident that improvements have been made in that area and points out that the Scottish Government launched its new strategic priorities in conjunction with COSLA “because they now recognise there has been a significant change in the way in which Police Scotland are now going about delivering local policing.”

Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable, Strategic Development, Malcolm Graham, echoes similar points: “I think what I have seen in the relatively short history of Police Scotland is that there’s been an awful lot of focus on what we do at a local level in partnership and, understandably, a lot of debate in the early years about does the creation of a national service lead to a loss of local flavour, flexibility and responsiveness.

“I think we’ve listened to that and understood that those concerns are completely legitimate and we’ve responded to it in a way that is now starting to pay dividends with local empowerment to make decisions within a framework of the benefits of a national service.

“So…in relation to what have the successes been in a very short space of time, we’ve created the capacity to deal with high end threat, to respond effectively with specialist capability into organised crime, major crime, across the growth in rape, sexual crime, specialist child abuse, national centres round about cyber crime, cyber forensics, all of that has dramatically improved.

“And most of it is largely invisible to members of the community, and that’s right to an extent. It would be worrying if the general population of Scotland had a very strong sense of the way in which the police deal with child abuse, the way in which police deal with organised crime being visible to them, but the effects of it if we weren’t dealing with it would be very visible to them.”

But of course, it hasn’t only been the principle of a single force that has led to questions. In its first three years, Police Scotland has been beset by problems in areas such as stop and search, armed policing, the death of Sheku Bayoh in police detention and call handling after the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill in the fatal crash on the M9 in July 2015, where they lay in their car for three days after the incident was first reported to police call handlers.

Some of the investigations are ongoing, but changes in practice are already under way, particularly in call handling and stop and search.

Two weeks ago, new guidelines were published for stop and search, which Police Scotland has worked on along with a group of experts led by John Scott QC.

On the subject of these high profile cases, Michael Matheson said: “By and large, we are extremely well served by Police Scotland.

“I have the pleasure of being able to see some of the very detailed work which they take forward and the way in which they deliver services across the country, both at a national and at a local level, and the dedication and the commitment of officers at times has just struck me as being absolutely outstanding.

“There’s no doubt there have been times when there have been real challenges where the service hasn’t met the standards which we and the people of Scotland would expect from them.

“I don’t want to get drawn into individual cases because they’re obviously live investigations, but there’s no doubt that they do have an impact on people’s perception of the service.

“What is always extremely important in these matters is that we have a very thorough and detailed investigation into identifying what has contributed to these issues and ensuring that we do absolutely everything possible when we are addressing these matters to prevent them from ever happening again.

“And following the tragic events on the M9, there has been a significant amount of work taken forward that I directed through Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMICS) in order to completely review the way in which Police Scotland are taking forward their call handling system and that has resulted in significant changes in the way in which Police Scotland are taking that forward, the way in which they resource it and the planning and implementation of the changes over the last year or so.”

How have these cases affected practice on the ground within Police Scotland?

“Hugely,” answers Graham. “So I think that stop and search is a real success story in terms of our responsiveness and the way that we’ve worked in partnership to shape that and that’s a matter of public discourse now, because it’s been played out publicly to give that confidence, actually, we’re willing to listen and improve and how that’s been done.

“Likewise in terms of call handling, the level of scrutiny that’s rightly undergone, the significant changes and what has come from that.”

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, Derek Penman, agrees. He confirms that Police Scotland has been making real improvements in call handling, following recommendations in a critical HMICS review, as outlined in a one-year-on update report that was published last week: “Police Scotland have been working really, really hard on implementing these recommendations, in our view, and have made some real improvements in call handling and they’ve also successfully implemented a number of their key stages in their rollout as well,” he tells Holyrood.

HMICS will shortly publish an updated report on stop and search, and Penman notes there “have now been significant improvements” there too.

The third critical area that HMICS has been involved in reporting on was armed officers. But there Penman advocates a difficult conversation with the public on armed officers, who are required to have a weapon on them at all times in case they are called out to respond to a firearms incident, that they also should be able to attend “routine, low risk calls”.

Penman says: “What we said in our report is that if you have officers who have to carry firearms as a contingency, so they have the gun there in case they’re required to use them, and that risk is all across the country, the issue is that, thankfully, because there’s not a high volume of gun crime, but they’re still needed, then if they’re not able to attend other calls, they’re actually not adding a lot of value to communities and local police in those areas.

“My view would be, in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, good would look like actually the public and others understanding that there needs to be small number of officers who have guns on them all the time – and it’s not all officers, it’s a small number of them – but for them to contribute to policing their community and keeping it safe, actually, they should be able to attend some calls.”

In relation to undercover policing, Graham points out that Police Scotland has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but says he would welcome a conversation about the issue.

He explains: “I don’t think there’s been any call for us to change the way in which we do undercover policing, but I do understand there’s been a call about looking at how undercover policing has been used and we’re very open to being the subject of whatever form of scrutiny comes round about what is a hugely important and legitimate tactic … the public discourse has largely been about a very small element round about public protest and environmental groups.

“And some of the practices which have come out publicly, which I’m only aware of through the media personally, which I don’t seek to support or condone at all, but actually, that shouldn’t undermine the hugely legitimate benefits of that tactic, which are largely unseen in terms of tackling the highest threat organised crime groups, the most significant child abusers and the success that we have through, in some respects, a view that we might hold that it’s a tactic that we should be using more often.”

However, these issues are only a very small part of the picture. Behind the scenes, a much greater focus is on Scottish policing strategy over the next decade, changing demands and skills requirements, plus the clear need for reform to meet increased demands, at the same time as dealing with budget pressures.

Audit Scotland reported in December that Police Scotland was facing a budget shortfall of £188m by 2020/21, with that figure increased to £200m last week by Auditor General Caroline Gardner, so something needs to give.

The financial management in both Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority have been criticised both in the report and in an evidence session to the Scottish Parliament’s Audit Committee last Wednesday.

“[T]his strikes me that this is an organisation in crisis in terms of the management of their finances,” said SNP committee member Alex Neil.

In terms of future planning, Police Scotland carried out a piece of work about new demands on policing for the first time late last year, which Graham presented to Holyrood’s Justice Committee last week.

This, in turn, is feeding into its ‘Policing 2026’ strategy, a much wider ranging strategy that looks at policing in Scotland over the next decade to be published in the spring.

The key finding from this research on demand on policing, was that four out of five of the over 900,000 incidents attended by Police Scotland last year did not lead to a crime being reported.

Much of this relates to a changing population, with police more frequently being called on to help in situations relating to vulnerable people, either due to age or mental health issues.

That highlights that crime statistics are only part of the picture when it comes to police performance – and the statistics themselves have not been without controversy.

The general trend shows a fall in convictions in Scotland over the last decade, with the latest figures for 2015-16 showing a five per cent drop from 2014-15 in the number of people proceeded against and convictions down six per cent.

This meant convictions in 2015-16 were around 26 per cent lower than the peak in 2006-07, with the drop led by a significant 16 per cent decrease in motoring offences.

However, there is a general rise in convictions for sexual crimes; in 2015-16, they were just a few above last year at 1,156.

This follows four consecutive annual rises, with convictions in 2015-16 53 per cent higher than the 756 convictions in 2010-11.

Part of this rise reflects an increased level of reporting in the wake of recent high profile cases. However, the number of convictions for rape and attempted rape decreased 16 per cent, from 124 in 2014-15 to 104 in 2015-16, but despite the latest fall, the number of convictions for rape and attempted rape have nearly tripled since 2010-11.

Convictions for non-sexual crimes of violence rose one per cent in 2015-16 to 1,765, compared to 1,739 in 2014-15.

The number of convictions for homicide and attempted murder and serious assault increased, but levels for robbery and other violence fell to their lowest levels in ten years.

There was a one per cent decrease in convictions with a domestic violence element, which represents a stabilisation following four consecutive annual increases, with levels now 44 per cent higher than in 2010-11.

But there have been questions around the classification of violent offences in official statistics, with common assault ranked as an ‘offence’ rather than a ‘crime’, so not included in the violent crime figures.

Conservative shadow justice secretary Douglas Ross has written to Michael Matheson about the issue and a review of the classifications is underway by the Scottish Crime Recording Board following recommendations by HMICS.

Another key aspect of the justice agenda, both within policing and the wider justice community, is prevention, of both offending and reoffending, including policy moves towards fewer short prison sentences and more community justice.

There is currently a presumption against short prison sentences of less than three months, although as Michael Matheson noted in a recent interview with Holyrood, this is just a presumption and it is up to the judge to decide.

The Scottish Government will consult soon on raising the presumption against short custodial sentences above three months.

The sentencing statistics suggest there has been progress in the move away from short custodial sentences, but there is still some way to go.

The latest figures show the number of convictions resulting in a custodial sentence fell in 2015-16, but by just two per cent.

These sentences represented 14 per cent of sentences, a proportion that has not changed much over the past 10 years.

And while the number of short-term sentences of up to three months has dropped from 53 per cent in 2006-07, they still make up 30 per cent of convictions, and fairly short-term sentences of between three and six months make up the largest proportion of sentences, 35 per cent in 2015-16, although the average length of custodial sentences went up by one per cent on the previous year.

However, in 2015-16, there was also a two per cent rise in the number of community sentences, the majority of which, 88 per cent, were community payback orders.

The percentage of community sentences has increased significantly since 2006-07, now making up 19 per cent of all sentences.

Scotland has not seen the rioting that has occurred in several English prisons in recent months or the threats of strikes over staffing, and in his October 2016 report, David Strang, Scotland’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, particularly noted the “positive relationships” between staff and prisoners.

And while the country still has, proportionately, the second highest prison population in Western Europe, it did fall to a seven-year low last year – although Strang said he “would welcome” an extension of the presumption against short prison sentences to 12 months.

This prevention and community-based agenda is explicitly laid out in the Community Justice Act, which takes effect from April and will see more partnership work on a local level to reduce crime, including looking at non-justice related areas such as employment, as there is a correlation between crime and wider issues of poverty and injustice.

More help for those leaving custody is also an issue that needs to be addressed.

Strang said: “There is a challenge too for society to do more to welcome people leaving prison back into their local communities.

“Too often people leave prison without the necessary arrangements in place to meet their basic needs: men released from prison not knowing where they will sleep that night; people with healthcare needs unsure whether their addiction support will be in place in the community; young people leaving with insufficient money in their pocket to last until their benefits are due.

“We know that accommodation, healthcare and financial support are vital to encourage successful reintegration and to reduce reoffending.”

There is already much good work going on in prevention. The number of young men in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution has been reduced due to more work in directing them into community sentences and services to prevent them ending up in the justice system at all.

The reduction can only be positive, given the news of two young offenders dying in custody there last week, although the details surrounding the deaths are not known at the time of going to print.

The decision to replace Cornton Vale women’s prison with a number of smaller institutions that will have focus on support and rehabilitation also relates to this strategy, as Michael Matheson explains elsewhere in this magazine.

The ongoing work by Scotland’s ground-breaking Violence Reduction Unit, formed 12 years ago, particularly to deal with knife crime, but with its remit expanded a year later to cover all violent crime, also contributes to this, with key work, for example, in the area of domestic violence.

While hopefully not the only driver of change, budgets across the justice system, as with the whole of the public sector are reducing, and prevention tends to be cheaper, as well as better, than cure.

This certainly is one of the key reasons for the need for reform and a new strategy for policing.

The Policing 2026 strategy will be published shortly and Derek Penman summarises what he is expecting from Police Scotland: “My kind of take on summarising it is, the landscape of policing has changed, the last few years have been about consolidating eight into one and of delivering operational stability, but that’s not sustainable.

“They need now to deliver a proper transformational strategy that will show how they can start to respond to these new threats, what that means in terms of workforce, which might mean a different balance between officers doing community work to officers who are maybe doing computer-based investigations, some of them might not even be police officers, it could be police staff, so it might change the workforce mix.

“So Police Scotland need to work all that through – which is what they’re doing through their 2026 strategy – but then come back and say, this is what the future looks like and here is our plan to get there and actually, this is how much it’s going to cost.

“So you end up having a 2026 strategy with a workforce plan and a financial plan, which is a bit management speak, but that’s the sustainability bit that needs to be done.”

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