| 9.8°C Belfast

Policing is a matter of policy, not personality

Often lost in the high politics and crisis management around the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly is what practical difference it could actually make to the wider community.

While there is clearly sufficient confidence for devolution today, confidence is not just something that is built up before devolution, it is also something that would have to be nurtured after devolution through the right policies being delivered.

Policy delivery has been patchy at best from the current Executive. But in general where there has been agreement between parties through the amazingly short Programme for Government delivery has been relatively smooth.

For other issues, chaos has reigned supreme.

It is for this reason that the Alliance Party has been so focused on the importance of getting cross-party agreement on a policy programme in advance of devolution, irrespective of which party ends up providing the minister.

For us, policy has always come before issues of personality.

Accordingly, we have tabled detailed proposals relating to what policies could be pursued under devolution.

That said, there will always be events and challenges outside the context of an agreed programme that will require skilful navigation.

Furthermore, given that the context of a divided society affects the justice system in so many ways and also given that the justice system can be deployed to support efforts at sharing and addressing the physical manifestations of division, Alliance believes that it is critical that an Executive policy on building good relations is in place.

Essentially, the devolution of policing and justice means placing the responsibility for the policy-making and allocation of resources within the criminal justice system in the hands of a local minister, the power-sharing Executive and the Assembly.

Powers will relate to the criminal and civil law, the management and treatment of offenders, and community safety and anti-social behaviour issues.

Most of the current responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Office will transfer to a new Department of Justice.

However, any new department will not succeed if it is simply a continuation of the NIO under a new name.

Similarly, devolution must be about more than replicating policy initiatives that have already occurred elsewhere in the UK.

Local solutions to fit local circumstances must be fashioned, and Northern Ireland should have the ambition of becoming a world leader in aspects of criminal justice.

Over 25 different agencies will be part of the devolution package. Within this, the most notable bodies transferring include: the Police Service, Policing Board; the Public Prosecution Service, Court Service, the Prison Service, the Probation Board and the Youth Justice Agency.

The operational independence of the Chief Constable, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the judiciary will be preserved.

Northern Ireland has a good story to tell. Crimes levels, while troubling, are relatively low. Many of our criminal justice institutions and structures have been modernised.

Our police service is professional and the most accountable in the world. Human rights considerations are wired into our system. Our approach to youth justice is becoming a world leader.

Yet, there are considerable problems to be tackled. Our system is very inefficient and costly.

Prison places per head are twice as expensive as the rest of the UK, while offenders are not being effectively rehabilitated.

Our speed of justice is very slow and avoidable delays high.

The needs of victims and witnesses are not adequately addressed. There is a desire for more visible policing. Confidence in the integrity of sentencing needs to be improved, with the model of the English Sentencing Guidelines Council worthy of consideration.

As the generous financial package only deals with the costs of the past, the pressure on resources will be considerable.

Not only will efficiencies need to be found within the system, but justice of the future will have to compete with health and education for scarce resources.

From these challenges arise new opportunities to do things smarter and better under devolution. The greatest opportunity lies in terms of joined-up government.

First, the criminal justice system must be viewed as a single system. What happens in one aspect can have repercussions elsewhere.

For instance, the speed of justice affects the number of prisoners on remand, and what happens in the prisons in terms of rehabilitation can have an influence over levels of reoffending.

Second, there will be opportunities for co-operation between different government departments and their respective agencies. For instance, a new Department of Justice could work with the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure over spectator sporting offences, with Environment over environmental crimes, and with Social Development over licensing issues.

A Department of Justice can deal with the management of offending, but a range of departments and agencies must contribute to the prevention of offending and re-offending, including the departments of Education, and Employment and Learning, the Housing Executive, and Health Trusts.

There is an obvious correlation between offending and issues such as poverty and alcohol abuse.

Prison is required to protect the public from dangerous offenders, and to reflect the seriousness of certain offences. But prison is not always the answer. Sometimes action in the community can be more effective. But when in prison, greater emphasis needs to be placed on rehabilitation than just security.

Virtually everyone that goes into prison will one day be released, and returned to the community. Ultimately, greater emphasis needs to be placed on early intervention and prevention. This means working to reduce levels of offending and anti-social behaviour at source.

The achievement of this objective requires much broader co-operation between agencies and local community planning.

This is not about being soft on criminals. Far from it — it is about doing what works.

It is about following the evidence. Some people may want to judge the effectiveness of the criminal justice system based on how many people are locked up.

Rather it should be about reducing offending, and thereby letting people feel safe in their homes and on the streets.

This is the challenge and opportunity of devolution.

Dr Stephen Farry MLA is the Justice Spokesperson of the Alliance Party

Belfast Telegraph