Sharp fall in offenders who face courts

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The Independent Online

The proportion of offenders brought before the courts and convicted has declined sharply under Labour, despite repeated promises to address inefficiencies in the criminal justice system.

The proportion of offenders brought before the courts and convicted has declined sharply under Labour, despite repeated promises to address inefficiencies in the criminal justice system.

The annual number of offences brought to justice has fallen from 1,120,000, in the year to March 1999, to 1,020,000 in the 12 months to March 2002, a drop of 9 per cent, says a government report. It blamed a fall in police numbers for "at least part" of the problem.

The report, issued by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, concluded: "There is scope for every criminal justice area to improve." The document, Narrowing The Justice Gap, said a comparison of the years ending March 2000 and June 2001 showed the number of offences brought to justice had fallen in 33 out of the 42 police force areas in England and Wales. It said: "Performance declined nationally by 8 per cent during this period."

The report also revealed that the Government has revised the main criminal justice pledge in Labour's 2001 general election manifesto – a promise to bring 100,000 more crimes to justice by 2003-04. Figures show this improvement would only bring the number of cautions and successful prosecutions back to March 1999 levels.

The document pledges to bring 175,000 more crimes to justice by 2005-06 – a 6 per cent improvement every year for the next three years.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, a Home Office minister, saidrenewed efforts would be made to target prolific offenders and bring them quickly before the courts. The Persistent Offender Scheme will concentrate on adults who have been convicted of six or more recordable offences in the past year, he said. The programme will be based on the Police National Computer and will benefit from an online system named JTrack, that allows persistent adult offenders to be more easily identified by the different agencies.

Those responsible for multi-ple robberies, burglaries and theft will be among the prolific criminals "flagged" on the computer system. Police commanders will receive regular lists of the persistent offenders in their area.

The JTrack system, used by both police and the Crown Prosecution Service, will keep tabs on them and any future cases involving them will be made a priority.

A report by the Audit Commission published in June found criminals have only a one in 16 chance of being caught and sentenced, with 5.2 million offences recorded by police in 2000-01, and only 326,000 offenders sentenced in court.

Lord Falconer said: "Too few offenders are brought to justice. The current size of the justice gap is unacceptable, we can and must do better."

He said the system had successfully reduced the time it takes to bring persistent young offenders before the courts and that similar improvements must be made with prolific adult criminals.

But a spokesman for the crime reduction charity Nacro questioned the approach. He said: "Frequency of offence should not be the only measure of priority. Would anyone seriously argue that a persistent shoplifter be given priority over a one-off murderer?"

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, expressed concern that the system would be based on the Police National Computer, which he said was "riddled with errors".