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Innovation fund proposed to develop out of court disposal schemes

Chiefs and Police and Crime Commissioners could cut crime by sharing best practice on diversion schemes for offenders, researchers have said.

The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice need to set up a joint innovation fund to encourage PCCs and chief constables to establish out of court disposal schemes a new study has said.

The Crest Advisory report says some out-of-court disposals involving diversion schemes have proven success in cutting reoffending but they are not widely used, while too many other courses have not been properly evaluated. 

The study has been published amid government plans to streamline out of court disposals in an effort to rationalise how they are used by forces and establish best practice based on proper assessment of their effectiveness in cutting offending.

Among 19 recommendations, it also suggests extending the Youth Offending Team model to 18 to 25 year olds, to give support to young adult offenders who are still developing mentally and emotionally, including while they complete out-of-court diversion programmes.

Report author Danny Shaw said: “The principal aim of this project has been to identify whether there is scope for expanding the use of out-of-court disposals and diversion programmes - in part to ease pressure on the criminal justice system. 

“Our conclusion is that there is certainly scope to do so, building on pockets of good practice across England and Wales; the measured work of Youth Offending Teams; and an acknowledgment by the public that it is a viable approach to deal with offending by people who are vulnerable. 

“And now - as the government introduces a new streamlined system for out-of-court disposals - is the perfect time to make that change. 

“Ministers, police and crime commissioners and chief constables must grab the opportunity with both hands,” he said.

The study, supported by the Hadley Trust, concluded extending the Youth Offending Team model to 18 to 25 year olds was the best option.

The research was backed by detailed public polling that found people backed the schemes but they needed to know more about them.

Out-of-court disposals got the strongest support for low-level crimes such as possession of cannabis and shoplifting with significant support for applying such sanctions where offenders are vulnerable.

But the research also found a lack of awareness about initiatives like restorative justice and scepticism as to their effectiveness, with a significant number regarding them as “too soft”. 

Only 32% of respondents could accurately define an out-of-court disposal. But, when given a short description of out-of-court disposals, 67% supported their for first-time offenders.

Police and Crime Commissioners are already funding schemes as part of initiatives to reduce violent crime and anti-social behaviour.

Many are aimed at young people who are most at risk: the juvenile reoffending rate is 34.3% and the reoffending rate in adults is 24.7%.

The government wants to cut this and the huge build up of cases due to lockdown.

Currently the Magistrates' Court backlog stands at 372,654 cases. In the Crown Court it is 58,728.

But the Home Secretary is also keen to claim the government is tough or ‘cracking down’ on crime and non-custodial sentences are not easy to to communicate as tough.

So PCCs and Chiefs have been left to develop work at local level, largely through youth offending teams.

The Crest report concluded: “There are powerful arguments for expanding the use of out-of-court disposals - but there is much work to do before that can happen, not least in making sure the public are on board with the idea.

“Our survey suggests it will be a challenge to persuade people that out-of-court disposals and diversion schemes are not a ‘soft’ option.

“The public also demand a consistent approach from police, with victims properly consulted before such sanctions are applied.”

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