The Cambridgeshire Police pilot scheme to use Skype for reporting crimes made headlines recently, touted as a way to free up officers’ time for more neighbourhood patrols and increase flexibility for victims. The move, which has received criticism as a crude money-saving method that threatens to exclude those unable to use the technology, is in fact part of a much wider development taking place within the Criminal Justice System as a whole.
In several European countries, such as the UK, the Netherlands, Austria and Estonia, the criminal justice sphere is being overhauled. The reasons for starting up digitisation projects vary widely. The primary goals range from emphasising greater efficiency and reducing costs, to increasing the satisfaction of professionals in the criminal justice chain and improving service to citizens through better information provision.
While an important driver behind the British modernisation project is the need to bring down costs and increase efficiency, there are other significant objectives to be achieved. At the heart of the strategy is a priority to move toward a system that focuses on the needs of victims and witnesses of crime, as well as creating a criminal justice system that is digital and works faster and more accurately,. Digitisation allows for procedures to be streamlined; as employees in the police force embrace these new digitals workings as it frees up more time to be spent on reducing crime and giving support to victims and witnesses. By capturing proof electronically, via body-worn cameras for instance, the quality of evidence is greatly improved and so makes obtaining a conviction more likely. As pointed out by Richard Bobbett, CEO of Airwave, results from Police Scotland show that as many as 90 per cent of suspects plead guilty early when confronted by video evidence, meaning that the process is quicker and fewer victims need to go through the distress of a trial.
In December 2012, the UK government declared its vision for a digitised criminal justice system, and the following year announced that £160 million would be invested in creating digital courtrooms and improving IT systems. The CJS Efficiency Programme is the driver behind the modernisation process, and although not much attention has been given to the transformation, the government’s vision is to achieve a totally paperless system by the summer of 2016.
The concept was initially trialled for a six-month period at Sutton Coldfield in 2012 and produced spectacular results. The West Midlands Police force said that the trial had saved a total of 165 hours and 640 miles of travel by reducing the need for officers to leave their stations to get to and from court. Ultimately, officers’ time was freed up, allowing them to focus on curbing crime and policing their communities. The Live Link scheme which was subsequently rolled out across the force was projected to save more than 14,000 hours and £309,000 a year by enabling officers to provide evidence via video-link.
So how has the process progressed since the start of implementation measures?
A government report published in July last year showed that, since the publication of the modernisation plan, crime had fallen to its lowest level since 2002 and had decreased by 15% from the previous year; moreover, the proportion of cases dealt with in magistrates’ courts which were completed at first listing increased from 66% in the first quarter of 2013 to 69% in the first quarter or 2014. The average time taken from when an offence is committed to when it is completed in the court also experienced a reduction. Contrary to the fears of some speculators, these accomplishments have been achieved alongside lower spending and not at the expense of diligence and professionalism.
Of course, difficulties remain. Coordination with the courts and digitisation of information exchanges with the courts turns out to be difficult in practice. In the UK, the courts waited until digitisation had been implemented in the rest of the criminal justice chain so that they could easily link up to it. In order for a successful transformation to occur, digitisation must become part of the way that the chain operates rather than becoming an additional working process. Richard Bobbett highlights this point, stressing that the piles of paperwork that still abound in courtrooms all over the country demonstrate that the digital revolution still has some way to go.
Communication about the chain process is also essential: the activities to be performed will soon be seen as unnecessary if it is not made sufficiently clear that this saves work elsewhere in the chain. This is especially important as agencies within the chain, such as the Ministry of Justice or Her Majesty’s Courts, acts on their own objectives, follow idiosyncratic processes and store their data differently.
However, the achievements so far, such as the rolling out of broadband to courtrooms and the digital case-file initiative, have been notable, and the fact that the Government Digital Service is taking an interest in the cause is especially encouraging. What is absolutely clear is that the Government has acknowledged the potential in modernisation. How close it gets to fulfilling its aim of a paperless system by next year remains to be seen.
Ellinor Ottosson recently graduated from the London School of Economics where she studied social policy, having previously studied psychology at the university of Lund in Sweden. She is passionate about social issues and the impact they have on the individual. She enjoys travelling and learning languages and is hoping to find a career within events in the public sector.
Cover image: Marc Treble under a CC BY-NC 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license