Guilty of a bad idea…

SO how’s this for the sort of idea that insults justice, politics and fusty old Aunty Common Sense? Impose new fines on people when they appear in court that make it cheaper to plead guilty than maintain their innocence.

This idea was dreamt up by the former justice secretary Chris Grayling. He you may remember also caused an unnecessary row by banning books from prisons. He maintained at the time that the book ban would keep drugs out of prisons, although the Howard League for Penal Reform said this had not been originally cited as a reason. As far as anyone could tell, the reason was simply that the idea occurred to Grayling, perhaps while he was in the shower one morning, dreaming amid the steam of ways to flex his ministerial muscle.

It was such a great idea that Grayling managed to unite many of the leading writers in this country in opposition to his policy, which was relaxed earlier this year after a High Court ruling that the restriction was unlawful.

Grayling seems to have decided to go undimmed in the night of post-ministerial life by planting another ridiculous idea in the justice system. It’s almost as if he shuffled off muttering that if those pesky judges wouldn’t let him ban books, then he would mess something else up instead.

His new policy was introduced in April and now magistrates have begun to resign in protest at court charges of up to £1,200 that they claim can never be collected and encourage the innocent to plead guilty. The new charge was supposed to ensure that convicted adult offenders pay towards the cost of running the criminal justice system. As Grayling said at the time, no doubt freshly douched from the shower of stupid ideas, “Blah-blah and because I want to…”

Well, not quite. What he said was: “We’re on the side of people who work hard and want to get on, and that is why these reforms will make sure that those who commit crime pay their way and contribute towards the cost of their court cases.”

And let’s just rewind a little here… magistrates are resigning because of having to impose fines that encourage the innocent to plead guilty. That’s not justice, is it?

The charges in magistrates’ court range from £150 for anyone who pleads guilty to a summary offence up to £1,000 for those convicted of a serious offence. In the crown court, the charges are higher and can reach £1,200.

The sinister part of this policy is that because it costs less to plead guilty rather than face conviction after a contested trial, some people believe the innocent are pleading guilty as a cheaper way out.

This sort of thing can be called a perverse incentive. Here is an example of the unintended results such ideas can have, gleaned from a Google dip. Under French colonial rule, a plan to exterminate rats in Hanoi was based on paying a bounty for each rat tail handed in. Instead of wiping out rats, this is said to have led to the farming of rats for their now valuable tails.

Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates Association, is quoted today as saying that his members had expressed concerns about the new charge from the outset and “it shows the strength of feeling when experienced magistrates resign from the bench because of it”.

Examples given by one departing magistrate in a letter to a newspaper include an unemployed man who put excessive toilet paper down a police-cell lavatory and ended up with costs of £410.

Sometimes it seems that government ministers are not happy unless they are proving their strength/testing the bounds of their idiocy by taking on so-called vested interests. Usually, as with the departing magistrates, these turn out to be the people who know what’s what.

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