Reports from the audit trail ... number 5
By Jon Robins
I have visited the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre twice this year, as part of LAG’s Access to Justice Audit. You can see a film as part of the Guardian’s Justice Gap series: www.guardian.co.uk/money/series/the-justice-gap.
The court is a radical experiment in the criminal justice system. It was launched in 2005 at huge cost - £5.2 million - and that was just to open the doors. The initiative takes its inspiration from a court on the other side of the Atlantic, the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn.
There is now a proliferation of so-called ‘community justice centres’ but North Liverpool is the only court centre built on the Brooklyn model. The American court has been credited with contributing to the regeneration of a part of Brooklyn that Life magazine once labelled as one of America’s most ‘crack-infested’ areas.
In 2002, the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, visited Red Hook and was suitably impressed. A trip by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, followed and he returned a convert. Sadly, it seems that one of the boldest examples of judicial thinking has been quietly buried. Tucked away in the recent green paper, 'Engaging communities in criminal justice', published earlier this year, policy-makers ruled out future centres ‘in light of the costs involved’.
North Liverpool Community Justice Centre, based in a former secondary school on Boundary Street in Kirkdale, is close to the heart of the community that it seeks to serve. It is a bright, shiny, hi-tech court complex – a million miles away from the Victorian gloom of Salford Magistrates’ Court (which houses the Salford Community Justice Initiative). There are 60 court staff in North Liverpool including all the main support services (probation officers, Citizens Advice, drug treatment officers etc) on site. Offenders’ cases are dealt with without delay and their other needs, from addiction treatments to housing benefit claims, can be dealt with promptly.
One judge – Mr Justice David Fletcher – presides over all cases enabling consistency of sentencing and help with the rehabilitation of offenders who are called back before the court under special sentencing review powers contained in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. His court sits as magistrates’ court, youth court, Crown Court and county court.
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has been to both Liverpool and New York. A sceptic at first, she is now a convert. Crook calls the approach ‘completely radical’. ‘We’ve tried whipping, branding, executing, transporting, prison and now we have orange flak jackets. We have to see these things in a more holistic way and try and solve the problem, that is the best way to protect victims.’
According to the government, North Liverpool ‘continues to be an extremely valuable and successful test-bed for the community justice approach as a whole, but we do not believe that the costs involved in building new centres can be justified at present’.
There are some 2,500 such courts now in the US. Many cost/benefit analyses have been done. One report into eight specialist drug courts in California reckoned that there were cost savings of $3.50 for every dollar invested. That estimate just relates to savings to the criminal justice system – and not wider costs of avoided property damage, hospital bills, and lost wages. Red Hook now has the safest police precinct in Brooklyn.