'Lenient' courts force shift in war on criminals

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Police are to change tactics in their fight against the country's most dangerous criminals by prosecuting them for minor crimes instead of serious offences. The aim is first to put the criminals behind bars and then to use powerful new laws to confiscate their assets.

Police are to change tactics in their fight against the country's most dangerous criminals by prosecuting them for minor crimes instead of serious offences. The aim is first to put the criminals behind bars and then to use powerful new laws to confiscate their assets.

Police have abandoned pursuing crime barons for serious offences, such as drug trafficking, in a policy switch prompted by "ludicrous" trials and "lenient" sentences, one of the country's most senior detectives revealed.

Bill Hughes, the director general of the National Crime Squad (NCS), told The Independent that the long judicial process meant it was impractical to prosecute crime barons for complex offences. He denied the switch in tactics was "going soft" and giving up the fight against powerful criminals. But he believes that without changes to the law or extra resources this is the most effective way to remove the danger of drug traffickers, people smugglers and other big-time criminals.

He said that about a quarter of his 1,300 detectives were dealing with paperwork and working on trial preparation. In one drugs case, two detectives were working full-time on producing four million photocopies of evidence to give to the defendants' lawyers, he said.

Mr Hughes said police needed to rethink their approach. "It's about taking [serious criminals] out of business earlier. This might meaning dealing with them for lesser offences or other types of criminality."

He added: "Some of our targets, for example, have been disqualified from driving. This sounds like a low-level action but the courts take a dim view of repeat offenders and they can hand out a 12-month [jail] sentence. It's about disrupting them. We are looking to dismantle them as well. It's a far more proactive approach."

Mr Hughes said: "This is not a soft option. It's a different way of looking at how you use your resources and time to tackle crime." He said some complex investigations had gone on for five years. "With some trials it takes two years to bring them to trial. It's a nonsense, it's ludicrous. During that time the criminals can still be operating and committing new offences."

Many police chiefs feel frustrated at the disclosure rules, which require the prosecution to provide the defence with the evidence they have gathered. He described as "absolutely ridiculous" that the NCS was currently having to provide the defence in one drugs case with four million documents.

He also said the level of sentencing was often too low. "The level of sentences in many of the cases we get involved in I don't think reflects the severity of the offences ... It's a 19th-century model trying to deal with 21st-century crime."

The newly formed Asset Recovery Agency can seize valuables, such as homes, cars and yachts, and the Crown will need only to show that there were "reasonable grounds" to believe wealth had been acquired illegally. It would be for the owner to prove otherwise and assets could be seized on the "balance of probabilities".

The laws on disclosure were introduced to prevent a repeat of miscarriages of justice in the 1970s and 1980s. The prosecution has to provide copies of the evidence they intend to rely on and evidence that can assist the defence. Peter Rook, the chairman of the Bar Council's criminal bar association, said: "You cannot compromise the principle of a fair trial – a soft conviction does no one any good. You cannot cut corners with disclosure. It is a vital safeguard."