Smart Justice needs to work for road crime victims

Last week, Justice Secretary David Gauke called for a “fresh conversation, a national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like for our modern times”. He is keen to move the focus beyond prison; a costly and last resort option.  He wants to stop talking about hard justice and instead focus on smart justice. But what are the implications for road crime? And how will it affect victims?

 Justice is more than jail

RoadPeace believes that prison should not be a proxy for justice. In the case of road crime, it’s in fact very rarely used; only 1% of drivers convicted at court of a motoring offence receive a custodial sentence. Less than half of drivers convicted of dangerous driving are sent to jail, and 2% of drink drivers.

It is only the causing death or serious injury driving offences that are more likely to end in prison; and it’s not RoadPeace’s position that prison is applicable to all driving offences that result in death or serious injury. When RoadPeace campaigned for Causing death by careless driving, it was for a minimum mandatory driving ban, not a minimum mandatory jail sentence. Drivers can be culpable of causing a serious–even fatal crash, without the criminality required for a custodial sentence.

But will ‘Smart Justice’ lead to leniency and short sentences?

‘Smart Justice’ would mean short prison sentences (under 6 months) are abolished (but not for violent crime or sexual offences). The implication for road crime is that serial offenders and extreme cases of drink drivers and those convicted of driving license offences will escape jail (as these are offences with a maximum custodial sentence of 6 months). The key here is to ensure that the more appropriate punishment of a driving ban or vehicle confiscation is used.

For offences which carry more criminality e.g Death by dangerous driving, the Justice Minister is not indicating that shorter sentences would be applied.

And could ‘Smart Justice’ fail victims?

There are some areas of concern within the Justice Minister’s proposals.

What about drivers convicted of Failing to Stop in crashes involving death and serious injury? This is a summary offence with a six month maximum custodial sentence. The justice system has failed victims of fail to stop for too long. Change was promised but has yet to happen. We need a new offence for cases where drivers have absconded leaving a person for dead. Sorry to be so harsh but that is the grim reality of what is happening. See our briefing for last November’s parliamentary debate on road safety.

The Justice Secretary stressed that he did “not want to reverse the tougher sentences approach for serious offences”. But he also proposed greater consideration of Release on Temporary License (ROTL). It is under this scheme that a driver imprisoned for nine years for Causing death by dangerous driving is applying for early release. This was a very serious crime, with both multiple offending and multiple fatalities. RoadPeace’s analysis showed only one driver was given a longer custodial sentence that year so the judge was throwing the book at him the best that he could do. Smart justice should mean getting the balance right.  And this should mean ROTL not approved for the most extreme cases.

Justice should work for victims

Instead of just focusing on sentencing, more should be done on procedural justice and how victims are treated. This is especially true for families bereaved by law breaking drivers. They deserve to be treated as those bereaved by manslaughter are, with more support including the provision of a caseworker funded by the MoJ.

RoadPeace welcomes the Justice Minister’s approach generally. As he pointed out, shorter sentences don’t work and lead to offenders re-offending. But ‘Smart Justice’ should be approached with caution as many driving offences carry short sentences, which would be abolished. This shift would need to be balanced with greater use of driving bans. Equally it feels like there is a missed opportunity to not review sentencing guidelines. It has been over a decade since the sentencing for causing death by driving was reviewed.  And there has yet to be a consultation on the sentencing for Causing serious injury by dangerous driving, despite this being introduced over six years ago.

Smart justice is good in principle, but it could be smarter.

For more information on RoadPeace’s views on sentencing, see here.