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The end of the courtroom trial – and why we should be worried

People accused of crimes are increasingly being incentivised to simply plead guilty.

When people think of justice, it’s often the same images that are conjured up. The wood-paneled courtroom, the judge in wig and gown. A jury sat attentively. Two sides fighting for justice. Grandstanding speeches. The trial is the archetype of criminal justice.

In reality, though, the trial is starting to disappear. People accused of crimes, are increasingly being incentivised to simply plead guilty and to waive their right to a trial. In the US, where a fifth of the world’s prison population reside, a shocking 97 per cent of cases don’t go to trial at all. Instead people are convicted following plea bargains struck with prosecutors.

And it is not only in the US that the trial is disappearing. Fair Trials recently published our own report – The Disappearing Trial – which shows this growing global trend towards encouraging guilty pleas. The world over, trials are increasingly seen as too costly and inefficient. Too often the justice system is seen by policy-makers as a production line. From that perspective, trials just get in the way of processing “outcomes” as quickly and efficiently as possible. Defendants are incentivised to give up their right to a trial and plead guilty to streamline the process.

In the UK, too, this is happening. In the higher courts of England & Wales the vast majority of convictions (about 90 per cent) result from guilty pleas, not trials. There are strong incentives for defendants not to go to trial and to plead guilty as quickly as possible – even before seeing the evidence against them and, in some cases, before getting legal advice.

The obsession with the guilty plea as the silver bullet solution to all ills in the justice system (and, there are many) has come up again in light of the Lammy Review, the independent review of the treatment and outcomes for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people in the justice system.

There is much I would agree with in David Lammy’s Review, which asked a number of valid questions about the experience of BAME defendants in the criminal justice system. But there is a whole chapter on “Plea Decisions” which should cause some pause for thought.

Lammy’s conclusion is that one solution to the disproportionate presence of BAME defendants in prisons is for more BAME people to plead guilty. The argument goes that if these defendants pleaded guilty as often as white defendants, they’d be more likely to avoid prison – because you get a reduced sentence (in many cases non-custodial) if you plead guilty.

Why is this a problem? Well, it might be focusing on the wrong question. Who’s to say that black defendants don’t more often have good reason to proceed to trial – for example, because they have been wrongfully or over-zealously arrested or charged by the police, or because their rights have been violated in the process?

I am not convinced that encouraging BAME defendants to give up their right to trial is the best way to build their trust in the justice system. In the context of widespread discrimination at multiple levels from arrest to charge to sentencing, recognised in Lammy’s Review, it's no wonder BAME defendants more often choose to plead not guilty to seek their day in court and to challenge the case against them.

Does the UK really want to encourage a system where it is quicker and easier to convict more BAME defendants that enter the criminal justice system? Perhaps a guilty plea (at least on a peron’s first encounter with the police) can keep them out of prison, but criminal convictions still blight lives. In the US, the mass criminalisation facilitated by guilty pleas has decimated entire BAME communities.

I hope that the focus of the much-needed reforms proposed by Lammy is on true diversion from the criminal justice system, rather than on encouraging more and quicker guilty pleas. Guilty pleas definitely have a place in criminal justice systems, but without safeguards, they can and will cause injustice.

Jago Russell is chief executive of Fair Trials

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.