Fighting fear of crime

Joined-up justice is aimed at rebuilding public confidence in government and the rule of law

This year, 2005, seems a long way off from those heady days of "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The soundbite has proved much easier than the delivery. Then again, the government was given a long list to tackle.

This included soaring crime rates; victims who felt like the accused; and community concerns about low-level crime and social and environmental nuisances. There were inordinately long delays in cases coming to court; poor and low levels of enforcement; and a cumbersome, outmoded criminal justice system operating in silos, placing organisational concerns above those of the user. Public services were failing to deliver a multi-agency approach to social problems, culminating in high-profile tragedies such as the murder of Victoria Climbie.

Restructuring and performance management

Despite the fact that the government can claim recent falls in the levels of officially recorded crime, fear of crime remains persistently high. And public confidence in the criminal justice system remains low.

The government's primary objective is to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour and to make people feel safer. Joined-up criminal justice is a central part of the government's agenda to help rebuild public confidence and trust in government and the rule of law. For, ultimately, the criminal justice system cannot deliver without the underlying consent and co-operation of local communities.

All this sounds very sensible, but has the government adopted a coherent approach to tackling crime and the fear of crime?

No one can deny that the government has pursued a vigorous and active approach to crime, building up record numbers of initiatives and criminal justice bills. But is its somewhat frenetic activity being matched with results, or is a sharper focus required? What precisely is being joined up and why, and how much has been achieved since the government came to power?

The government's focus on joining up and reorganising services as a means of joining up the criminal justice system has had mixed results. The government proudly boasts that every criminal justice agency has been redesigned. I wonder how many of us - the public - have noticed that local criminal justice boards have got off to a flying start? Or registered, for that matter, significant overhauls in youth justice and new methods of working to tackle crime and disorder locally.

Chief constables will now tell you that the number of organisations to which they are accountable is unprecedented, that too many targets impede their activity and that, whatever the government says about its commitment to neighbourhood policing, national direction gets in the way of local effectiveness in policing.

The youth justice system has been overhauled with the establishment of the Youth Justice Board and its multi- agency network of youth offending teams (YOTs). The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 required police and local communities to work together, in partnership with other agencies, to develop and implement a strategy for reducing crime and disorder.

An Audit Commission report into youth justice concluded that there had been considerable improvements. Significantly, it found that, while there was a continuing rise in the adult prison population, the juvenile prison population had remained stable. An excellent result for a government committed to efficient and effective public expenditure. However, it also discovered that the public knew little about the new reforms and confidence in the youth justice system remained low. A poor result for a government which, at times, seems over-committed to communication.

In contrast, the operation of the 376 local crime and disorder reduction partnerships has taken longer to bed down. Problems include incompatible management information systems, poor analysis of the causes of crime at a strategic level, and an overemphasis on short-term solutions.

Using IT intelligently?

According to the government, IT will harness the latest information technology to reduce unnecessary paperwork, speed up processes and improve the criminal justice experience for all. The government has invested an "unparalleled" £2.24bn in the Criminal Justice System Information Technology (CJIT) programme. While the technology required to tackle these issues is not particularly complex, the challenge is how to ensure transformative change through effective business process and change management. Before CJIT was established, multiple initiatives were already under way, some already failing. CJIT's role is to pull all these together into an overarching joined-up agenda. So far, CJIT has kept a relatively low public profile about its achievements and effectiveness, not wanting to create hostages to fortune for a government that's had its fair share of high-profile IT failures.

Tackling community concerns

Tackling a system that focused on serious crime while ignoring low-level crime and community concerns was one of the government's priorities. It has increasingly turned to criminal law enforcement to deal with harmful or unwanted behaviour.

Critics suggest that a "law and order" agenda has come to dominate debate around what has been perceived to be a "growing crime problem". This approach includes the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) and penalty notices, not only for disorder but for a growing number of environmental offences such as dog fouling and litter. These are designed to provide speedier methods of justice and increase public confidence by reacting to their concerns.

If they operate effectively, penalty notice systems can be a proportionate way of dealing with minor criminal offences and civil wrongdoing. If they operate poorly, the public may believe that "ordinary" people are being punished while the "real criminals" get away. Critics of the penalty notice system believe that it is detrimental to quality of justice for a number of reasons. According to the Crime and Society Foundation, penalty notices for disorder contribute to the creation of a new class of semi-criminals, who face being put on the fast-track to arrest, prosecution and punishment. The foundation also argues that tackling complex social issues through the criminal justice system may be counterproductive, increasing insecurity, rather than making us, the public, feel safer.

Creating citizen-centred services

Since the publication of the Bichard report after the Soham murders, the drive for joining up the criminal justice system has increased. The lines of responsibility and accountability for criminal justice are becoming increasingly blurred between public authorities and other organisations to develop and implement joined-up solutions for community justice.

As tackling crime becomes part of a wider body of government departments, regulatory bodies and local agencies, the task of joining up community justice in its widest sense becomes larger and more ambitious for government, perhaps undermining its original objective. More resources are essential to tackling crime at all levels, but it is sometimes difficult for the public to understand which officer and what agency has what powers. And public perceptions of justice generally fail to make the distinction between criminal justice that is fit for the criminal justice system, and justice as a whole.

Public services need to adapt to citizens' demands for services that are more responsive to individual need, and their radically changing expectations. Where once standardised public services met public need, citizens now expect seamless services tailored to personal preference.

Hence the joining up of agencies, to deliver better performance and a customer-services approach. But these new forms of multi-agency working demand far more than simply attending round tables with joint agendas. They need new forms of leadership based on collaborative working and shared autonomy, between and across agencies. They also demand greater emphasis on frontline delivery, with empowered employees helping to revolutionise the relationship between the citizen and the system. Where once deference was the name of the game, now the criminal justice system must respond to a more demanding and well-educated public.

All the evidence shows that it is the way that people are treated by public services that affects their satisfaction levels, and not necessarily the ability of agencies to meet hard targets. But how effective can the criminal justice system ever be in tackling low-level crime and the day-to-day concerns of local communities? How far is it realistic to expect local communities to participate in "joined-up justice" when their knowledge of changes already implemented is so minimal?

The government has put in place considerable reforms for joining up criminal justice. There are also contradictions in its policies that run counter to effective delivery. If government is to deliver public trust, it needs to trust local people and local agencies a lot more; loosen up on centralised activity; and lighten up on new policy initiatives. Can government deliver joined-up criminal justice while building and restoring public trust? The public jury is undoubtedly still out.