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Criminal justice policy

Criminal Justice Act 1877

The Criminal Justice Act of 1877 remained in force until 1948, and was subject to reformist criticism during the inter-war period. Sir Maurice Waller and Sir Alexander Paterson were members of the Prisons Commission, and were committed to ideas of probation and rehabilitation. They were particularly concerned with finding effective ways of dealing with young offenders and persistent offenders.

Criminal Justice Bills 1925-1938

The Criminal Justice Bill of 1925 extended probationary services. A departmental committee of 1932 proposed different treatment of habitual criminals and those in the initial stages of criminal life. Probation was increasingly used as an alternative to incarceration and, along with the abolition of corporal punishment, was included in the abortive Criminal Justice Bill of 1938.

Criminal Justice Act 1948

The Labour government readdressed problems of criminal justice soon after its victory in July 1945. It considered procedural reform for appointing Justices of the Peace and the avoidance of party political bias in the process. The abolition of capital punishment was debated at this time, although it was not abolished until 1965.

The Criminal Justice Act of 1948 proposed a graded system of imprisonment depending on the seriousness of the crime and the offender's criminal record:

  • 'Corrective training' meant release of the prisoner on condition that further offence would result in sentencing
  • 'Detention centres' were used as a deterrent for young offenders (under the age of 21). The centres were resident institutions, with a less severe regime than borstal
  • 'Attendance centres' aimed at young offenders who had committed minor crimes. The young offender was required to attend the centres at weekends, and undertake rehabilitation activities

The right of the courts to impose 'corporal punishment' was abolished, although the Prisons Board of Visitors could still impose it. However, none of these reforms were found to be effective during the 1950s. Corrective training had little impact upon the rate of re-offending, few detention centres were built and attendance centres only used erratically.

Criminal Justice Act 1967

The 1960s saw great social and cultural change in Britain, and aspects of the criminal justice system became outdated. Wilson's Labour government of 1964 gave new momentum to reform. In 1963, Wilson instigated a study that provided a blueprint for criminal justice reform in three areas: the prison system and sentencing practices of courts, juvenile offenders and the law on murder.

The 'suspended sentence' was introduced, aimed at reducing mandatory prison sentences. Sentences of up to three years could be suspended, and sentences of six months or less were automatically suspended. Magistrates were discouraged to apply imprisonment for relatively minor offences. This was resisted by the <<Magistrates' Association>> and later amended under a Conservative government.

In order to reduce prison population, a parole system for convicts (who completed 12 months or one third of their sentence) was introduced. This reduced sentences in cases where further rehabilitation was thought to be redundant. Recommendations for parole were to be made by an independent review body.

The further Criminal Justice Act of 1972 incorporated the idea of community service as a non-custodial rehabilitative measure.