Joined-up criminal justice: can it work?

Supplement leader

Tony Blair gets eight entries in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations - not bad for someone still in the saddle. The leading entry is, of course, "Tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime." His government is taking the first half of that now overworked bon mot more seriously than the second.

Crime, like the poor, is a dispiriting constant in our society. Yet the world changes and there is no good reason why the way we deal with criminals - actual and potential - should not be updated, too. The government is right to take on this daunting challenge.

It is daunting for many reasons. One is the enervating complexity of the criminal justice system itself. Another, hardly less discouraging, is that it invites the scrutiny and the almost universal second-guessing of lawyers of every description. One wouldn't expect this, the most conservative, articulate and argumentative profession in the country, to accept change without a murmur.

None the less, the government has fired off a series of initiatives to crack down on crime and antisocial behaviour, bring more criminals to book and, as it says, "rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victims". Unsurprisingly, some of these initiatives have stirred up recrimination, ridicule and even alarm.

The introduction of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) has attracted more flak than most. There may be a good idea lurking in there somewhere but Asbos clearly need tighter definition and more careful application.

As they stand, they risk criminalising the merely feckless. And the definition of antisocial behaviour as that which causes "alarm, distress or harassment" is disturbingly subjective. Asked what that meant, a minister is reported to have replied: "Whatever the victim thinks it means." Exactly.

The streets, the courts and the prisons are the front line in the government's war on crime, so that is where public attention is fixed.

Back at HQ, however, less visible but equally important reforms are under way. These aim to link the component parts of the criminal justice system, making it more efficient overall, ensuring that offenders do not get away with it, and reducing reoffending. Key here is the cross-departmental Office for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR), which oversees the joining-up process in general, including an ambitious case management IT project and victim and witness support.

Joining up and the OCJR are welcome developments. But the reforms that the OCJR is co-ordinating are overwhelming those expected to carry them out. Down at the coalface, as targets are missed, "reform fatigue" threatens to transform goodwill into blame culture. It's time to put further initiatives on hold, while those projects already launched are properly bedded down without too much interference from on high.

All this activity notwithstanding, the government is mistaken if it believes a reconditioned and efficient criminal justice machine will solve the problem of crime. It will not. The system deals successfully with only a fraction of reported crime, which, in turn, is only a fraction of actual and perceived crime.

That places much more significance on dealing with the causes of crime.

To be tough on those, joined-upness has to extend beyond the justice system to other crucial areas of life and government - including education and health, which have remained largely aloof from this process. Such toughness also means devoting more effort - and money - to working with young people.

Because criminal justice is not a cure-all, it should not sit at the centre of a system intended to nip crime in the bud. It should take its place alongside the other agencies of government and enjoy more or less equal weight.

The Prime Minister's bon mot might then begin to sound

more like an accomplishment than mere ambition.