As a result of BCU’s active connections with West Midlands police, MA Criminology student Sally Browne has been able to attend two meetings discussing and scrutinising police decisions around Out of Court Disposals (OOCD). Here, she describes the experience.
Out of court disposals are alternatives to in court prosecutions and can only be used when an offender admits their guilt. They range from warnings, penalty notices, cautions, conditional cautions and restorative justice. Such decisions are usually made by the police and on occasion referred back to the police by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) if they feel that there is a lack of public interest in proceeding with a case.
The role of the meetings is to read and review the documentation, discuss whether the decision was appropriate for the individual case and reach a conclusion. Was it appropriate and in line with policy? Are there any comments to be made? Was it the wrong decision on review? Or were we unable to reach a final judgement? One of these options must be chosen by the group for each and every case.
Such judgements cannot change decisions made for the cases we examine, but feedback is given to individual officers and the police in general, and therefore alter how they will approach similar cases in the future. For the meetings I have attended there have been representatives from the CPS, Youth Services and practicing magistrates, along with myself and Beth Davies as BCU ambassadors giving a general public perspective.
Due to the sensitive nature of the meetings, case details and discussions cannot be discussed outside of the group. However, I will detail the lessons I learnt through participation in these discussions. The two meetings I attended focused on child abuse cases and female offenders, as each time the panel meet, they assess cases in similar categories of offenders or offences.
I was extremely apprehensive about assessing child abuse cases as it is a subject I find very uncomfortable, as I’m sure many others do, however I know that avoiding cases of child abuse does not keep children safe and that got me through the initial anxiety.
To my surprise the child abuse cases were not solely concerned with adult offenders or sexual abuse. They ranged from child neglect, physical assault (inappropriate chastisement), offending in schools and family disputes. It challenged the one-sided view often given in the media (a recurring theme of a policing or criminology degree) that child abusers are sexual predators. At first glance I was confident that OOCD were an ‘easy on crime’ approach as such abhorrent cases could receive as little as a caution or a penalty, however after gaining the perspective of criminal courts (and the limits to their powers) it became clear to me that it is far more complicated than that.
As we know, sexual, physical and psychological abuse is more likely to be perpetrated by the parents, wider family or friends of victims and therefore the courts find themselves in a difficult position. With such emotional ties to their perpetrators, many victims refuse to attend court or give evidence, leaving the court with weaker cases and therefore reduced chances of conviction. The media may have us believe that Police/CPS opt for OOCD to save money, however decisions are always victim led, made in the interests of the victim. This isn’t a ‘soft’ option - it is an alternative to prosecution that is assessed on a one to one basis and a decision made for the benefit of those involved.
Having said that, the Police/CPS also opt for OOCD in child abuse cases because they can be used to encourage offenders to work with Social Services (for example attend parenting classes). Panel members also made it clear than once a person has seen the inside of a court dock; they are more likely to reoffend as the court process is no longer the fearful unknown. This could mean there are fewer repeat offenders and therefore fewer future victims. I have come to believe that the process of OOCD scrutiny panels are victim and public safety centred.
Curtailing reoffenders by avoiding court was most poignant when discussing the female offending cases at my second meeting, as the age groups varied far more, for example including youth offenders to old age pensioners. One saddening feature of the female offending meeting was that emergency workers, like police officers and healthcare experts, were often attacked by members of the public. The fact that such assaults were dealt with through OOCD initially made me angry as such incidents are very serious; they can put officers out of action when they are desperately needed and are often a consequence of someone simply doing their job. Reflecting on the case materials and after discussion it become clear that some of these cases are influenced by mental illness or learning disabilities and therefore the officers felt it inappropriate to continue to court. This showed me a remarkable level of compassion from the CJS to those who are plagued with misunderstood and often terrifying conditions.
Mental health and disability reappeared in many cases across both the child abuse and female offender cases, consequently the choices to use OOCD were measured to such factors. This confirmed prior knowledge that I had acquired through my degree; that police officers are often called to protect, manage and direct help for mentally ill and vulnerable people. Yet, there were cases that landed in a grey area, one where the courts could not process it and where the solution given by the police was impractical for public and offender safety. In such instances, there was little choice but to reply an answer of ‘appropriate with policy’. It was aligned with the existing policy, however the policy itself was not suitable for such a case. This was a dilemma the panel came across a couple of times and we felt such issues needed to be highlighted, just as much as individual police decisions.
The experience offered a priceless insight into modern day policing, the partnerships between the judicial systems, the police and the public, but above all the physical proof that the CJS gives a second chance to those who deserve it. Having worked with West Midlands Police in the past, I have no doubt that issues highlighted by our group would be escalated, investigated and addressed through the appropriate channels in order to improve public and police relationships, victim recognition and reoffending rates. I would like to thank West Midlands Police for their committed attitude to their community, Nicola Lloyd (Neighbourhood Justice Manager) for allowing me to attend, Jonathan Jackson and Laura Riley for offering me such opportunities and BCU’s Criminology and Policing Department for their support throughout my university experience.