On-the-spot fines create a new class of 'semi-criminals'

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people are being consigned to a new class of "semi-criminals" by Tony Blair's policy of on-the-spot fines for minor offenders, the Government was warned yesterday.

Thousands of people are being consigned to a new class of "semi-criminals" by Tony Blair's policy of on-the-spot fines for minor offenders, the Government was warned yesterday.

Penalty notices for disorder (PNDs), under which offenders are fined for misdemeanours such as drunkenness or littering, have become a new weapon in the Government's fight against petty crime and anti-social behaviour. Offenders are fined between £30 and £80, with the amount increasing by 50 per cent if they fail to pay within three weeks.

But in a withering assessment of the new system, coinciding with the first anniversary on Friday of the fines being introduced nationwide, a leading criminal justice think-tank accused the Government of "putting punishment before justice". The Crime and Society Foundation warned: "PNDs erode justice in the name of speedier punishment."

The foundation fears that people who pay such fines, in the mistaken belief that they are not an admission of guilt, could have the fact of payment used against them in future. Police can add their DNA, fingerprints and photographs to the national police computer even though they have not admitted any wrong-doing.

"This risks creating a new 'semi-criminal' class, those with no formal criminal record yet deemed to be offenders," it says.

They face being put on the fast-track to arrest, prosecution and punishment in what is, in effect, a justice-free zone, it says. Because it operates outside the constraints of criminal justice, it removes important protections for members of the public.

The fines could create a "two-tier justice system", with the well-off buying their way out of further action, while poorer people have to take their chance in court, it says.

Warning of the potential impact on vulnerable children and families who may not be able to afford the fines, it says: "For an individual on a low income, an £80 PND is a significant penalty. For a stockbroker it may be equivalent to loose change. The implications for justice by income are obvious."

The report says PNDs have widened the "criminal justice dragnet" to bring in more people - particularly children - who might previously have escaped with an informal caution. "One person's nuisance is someone else's kick around in the street," it says.

Richard Garside, the foundation's director and a co-author of the report, said: "It is a bizarre state of affairs when an individual is required to pay a fine for a crime without going to court and without having to admit guilt. It's a good wheeze for ministers and the police because it creates the illusion of justice being done and crime being tackled. But penalty notices for disorders are more about extending the reach of the police and the criminal justice system than delivering genuine justice or promoting greater safety."

The Prime Minister first floated the idea of on-the-spot fines in June 2000 in a suggestion that yobs should be marched by police to a cash machine to collect the money for fines. The suggestion was widely ridiculed, but the principle was revived by David Blunkett, the former home secretary, the next year. After pilot schemes in four areas, it was rolled out nationally and an estimated 57,607 PNDs were issued in 2004.

Most were for "disorderly behaviour while drunk" (50 per cent) or "causing harassment, alarm or distress" (39 per cent).

A Home Office spokeswoman said penalty notices were designed to "reduce the burden on the courts, free police to patrol the streets and ensure those committing minor offences are punished, rather than let off with a warning".

"There is absolutely no requirement for anyone who thinks they are not guilty to pay a penalty notice for disorder. They can opt instead for a court hearing where they will have the opportunity to contest the notice," she said.


£50 fines:

  • Drunkenness in a public place
  • Drinking under-age
  • Drinking in "designated public place"
  • Dropping litter
  • Trespass on railway
  • Throwing objects at trains

£80 fines:

  • Theft of items valued up to £200
  • Damage to property valued up to £500
  • Behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress
  • Throwing fireworks
  • Ignoring curfews about when fireworks can be set off
  • Hoax call to fire brigade
  • Giving false information to a fire officer
  • Supplying alcohol to an under-18
  • Disorderly behaviour while drunk
  • Wasting police time/giving false report
  • Making nuisance telephone calls