In the Media

Former Met chief launches attack on justice system

PUBLISHED September 9, 2012

Sir Paul Stephenson, who was Britain's most senior police officer until his resignation in July last year, accused police and the courts of letting down victims of crime.

He singled out the victims of burglary as being poorly-served, saying that forces which failed to send an officer to every break-in were failing to treat the crime seriously, while courts were too often letting off offenders without a custodial sentence.

His remarks, in an article for The Sunday Telegraph, come the week after a judge was castigated for saying burglars needed a "huge amount of courage" to break into someone's home.

Sir Paul said describing such a "heinous" and "evil" crime in such a way was "foolish and reckless".

He went on to admit that with hindsight he was unsure he had always struck the right balance between pursuing tough sanctions for criminals and allowing the widening of softer, "diversionary schemes" for offenders during his 35-year career as a police officer.

In his first major commentary on law and order since he left Scotland Yard, Sir Paul said:

* Too many offenders are handed a slap on the wrist - such as a police caution or on-the-spot fine - rather than being prosecuted in the courts for their crimes.

* The criminal justice system (CJS) is sometimes more geared to criminals than victims.

* "Customs, traditions and vested interests" have prevented reform.

* Police and the courts will "never properly command the confidence of the public" unless they deal seriously with burglars.

Sir Paul said: "Burglary should be considered a heinous crime - evil and shocking.

"It can and does traumatise victims, often inducing a sense of violation, and in the very place we should all feel the most secure, our homes.

"It is not unheard of for people to want to sell and move elsewhere after an attack. The American phrase of 'home invasion' perhaps goes some way to capture the real nature of domestic burglary.

"I have consistently held the view that anyone contemplating invading someone's home for a criminal purpose should anticipate at the very least the strong likelihood of serving a custodial sentence if caught. It has to be said this is not the experience of many who make this choice.

"Put simply, failing to send a police officer to a report of someone's home having been violated is wholly inconsistent with a police service that takes burglary seriously.

"A criminal justice system, and agencies working within it, that fail to understand the importance of taking burglary seriously will never properly command the confidence of the public. If it doesn't do that, it fails."

The comments come after Judge Peter Bowers, sitting at Teesside Crown Court last Tuesday, said he expected to be "pilloried" when he noted the "courage" of burglars such as the man he was sentencing, Richard Rochford, 26, from Redcar, North Yorks, who had admitted targeting three homes in five days.

The Office for Judicial Complaints announced it had begun an inquiry after members of the public registered their concerns.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, responded by saying that burglars were "cowards" whose crimes were "hateful".

Last year less than half of burglars convicted at court went to prison for their crimes.

Just over 12,850 burglars were given community sentences or suspended jail terms - including 380 dealt with by a fine - compared with 11,986 who were handed immediate custody.

Many burglaries are properly investigated by police but there have been cases of law-abiding citizens being fobbed off by forces when dialling 999 to report the crime, including incidents in Sir Paul's former force.

And in September last year Tony Goodeve, 67, a financial adviser from Harpenden, Herts, called the Met police when he was woken by his neighbour's burglar alarm, but was told officers needed more proof of a crime in progress to respond. No police officers attended and it was later discovered that jewellery had been stolen.

In 2010, Warwickshire police apologised after a 999 operator told told Paul Freeman, 52, from Stratford-on-Avon that burglary was no longer a priority when he rang to report £15,000 of thefts from his garage.

Sir Paul - who resigned over his connection with a former News of the World executive arrested on suspicion of involvement in the phone hacking affair - said there was an "apparent propensity of our system to perversely prioritise the needs, rights and problems of offenders over that of the victims."

In a significant development, the former commissioner said a well-meaning attempt to speed up justice by allowing police to deal with less serious offences themselves had created a "parallel justice system" which lacked transparency.

"A number of years ago, in what was a genuine attempt to speed up justice and better manage cost and demand, we saw an expansion in police cautions and the introduction of fixed penalty notices for so called minor offences," said Sir Paul.

"Though this was never intended to apply to more serious offences, it was indicative of a mindset that found it easier to circumvent the problems inherent within our summary justice system than challenge the customs, traditions and vested interests in fixing it.

"Though in recent years a number of initiatives have attempted to address this, we still see too many offenders being diverted into what is effectively a parallel justice system - and one that lacks the transparency of the courts and is overly focussed upon addressing administrative pressures, as opposed to the aspirations of our citizens in search of security.

"Diversionary sanctions have their place, but not at the expense of a criminal justice system in which citizens can rightly have confidence.

"The understandable, and indeed laudable involvement of police officers in an array of diversion schemes for criminals and related initiatives must not be at the expense of their prime purpose, particularly at a time of dwindling resources and increasing expectations.

"Proud though I am of the efforts and achievements of the men and women I was fortunate enough to lead during my career, I'm not at all sure we always got that balance right."

He also implied that more prisons should be built to allow greater use of custodial terms for crimes which are currently punished with community sentences.

"Though not a popular subject in these times of financial austerity and restraint, the failure over decades to effectively address the issues of our prison estate has clearly influenced the likelihood of convicted burglars receiving the custodial sentences their crimes warrant early in their career," he said.

Sir Paul joined the police in 1975 after a previous career in the shoe-making industry. He was appointed chief constable of Lancashire, his home county, in 2002 and succeeded Sir Ian Blair as Met commis
sioner in January 2009. He resigned in 2011 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, after it was disclosed he recovered from major illness at a spa whose public relations representative was a former News of the World executive who was at the same time working for Scotland Yard.