UK: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill strengthens police powers to put down non-violent protests

Article by Fair Trials

The UK Government says that it’s trying to restore confidence in the criminal justice system. But the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (the PCSC Bill ), introduced last week is instead more likely to undermine trust and confidence in the system. This is an instrument designed to perpetuate discrimination and injustices in our criminal justice system, and undermine fundamental human rights. It must be dropped immediately.

Our criminal justice system is going through an unprecedented crisis. Courts are at breaking point under the enormous backlog of criminal cases, the number of people in prison waiting for their trial is at a six year high, and we have the highest prison population in Europe (a disproportionate number of whom are Black).

The PCSC Bill does nothing to address these urgent challenges. Instead, it’s a compilation of tried and tested policies of more aggressive policing, more arrests, more offences, and more imprisonment, that have repeated failed to deliver on promises of fair and effective justice and safer societies.

The Bill’s aims to reduce serious violence via data sharing between local authorities, the NHS and police will prevent people from accessing essential services like healthcare, housing and welfare, due to a fear of being reported to the police. They also open the door to the increased use of automated profiling systems and data analytics, which have repeatedly resulted in discriminatory and unfair outcomes when used by police and local authorities.

By proposing to extend police stop and search powers, the Government has chosen to ignore overwhelmingly damning evidence about its discriminatory impact and growing concerns about systemic racism in the police. The discretion afforded to police in stop and search has repeatedly led to racist profiling of black people across the country, and the powers afforded to police under Serious Violence Reduction Orders will only increase this racist profiling. Just last month, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary warned that the failure to tackle racial disparities in the use of stop and search powers will lead to a loss of public trust. If the Government does genuinely wish to restore confidence in the criminal justice system, does the confidence of certain communities and groups matter less than others? But it’s not just the Black community that the PCSC Bill seeks to over-police and over-criminalise. New offences criminalising unauthorised encampments are blatantly anti-Gypsyist, and they will inevitably draw even more Gypsy Roma and Traveller people unjustly into the criminal justice system.

There are also plans to expand the use of remote hearings in criminal cases. During the pandemic video hearings have needed to become more commonplace, but long-term normalisation of this practice is worrying given studies showing that they are an inadequate substitute for in-person hearings, with vulnerable suspects especially at risk of unfair trials. Research has also shown that video hearings are more likely to result in custodial sentences.

Proposed changes to laws on police bail could mean that the maximum period for which people can be released on pre-charge bail will be increased by threefold. With delays in the criminal justice system so severe that trials are currently being listed for 2023, it seems unreasonable that the Government is trying to lengthen criminal proceedings even further, harming the interests of defendants as well as victims and witnesses. New alternatives proposed to pre-trial detention will also extend surveillance measures imposed on people via location monitoring, and increasing the maximum curfew people can be subject to 20 hours a day.

It is also deeply worrying that the PCSC Bill also strengthens police powers to put down non-violent protests. During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve seen numerous authoritarian governments use emergency powers to silence dissent and undermine the freedom of assembly and it looks like the UK is following suit. It’s acutely hypocritical for the Government to condemn crackdowns on political dissent overseas, whilst introducing laws to quell peaceful protest at the same time at home.

The PCSC Bill might be the most dangerous criminal justice legislation proposed in recent years. It prioritises political gestures over evidence-based reforms, and it shows blatant disregard for fundamental human rights. It has to be stopped.

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