A judge's gavel in a courtroom

Imagine having a water leak, costing you £500 in lost water. The plumber comes along, says he’s found the source of the leak and it’s going to cost £15,000 to fix. However there is a 60% change that the leak will spring again within 12 months. Would you fix it?

This is what we do in the justice system. Recently, I spent a day in court and since then I’ve reflected on one particular case.

Bryan (not their real name), a 39 year old with a 20 year long drug addiction, pled guilty to throwing a rock through a restaurant window during the night and stealing £250 from the till.

Let’s assume the window repair costs £200 and £50 for cleaning. We can also assume the £250 of unrecovered cash has been spent fuelling Bryan’s habits between the time of the burglary and his swift arrest.

Total cost of crime = £500

Bryan was known to the Police, and was still under supervision with probation from an incident 11 months ago. He had not engaged well with probation, only attending 4 of 15 appointments. Given this history and the circumstances of the crime, Bryan received the maximum custodial sentence the magistrates could apply for a guilty plea, amounting to 21 weeks. Assuming he serves 11 weeks, Bryan will then be back under the supervision of the local, overstretched probation services for the next 12 months. Bryan was also ordered to repay the restaurateur £250.

Given Bryan’s situation, I can only imagine how long this will take to repay.

Cost Of Resolving The Crime

So how much has this process cost, and how much will Bryan’s punishment cost the tax-payer until completion? Let’s breakdown the overall process and try to work out how much it would cost:

Police – Crime reported, Investigate, Arrest, Preparation and Send to court
Magistrates Court – Preparation and Hearing of the case, Sentence
Prison – Holding of Bryan for the necessary time
Probation – Provide supervision for the agreed period after release

Based on research Make Time Count obtained as part of a project to reduce the court backlog, the average Police time for a “simple” court case, from original call out to preparation of court papers, requires 40 hours of time. Let’s assume Bryan’s case was simple and allocate 30 hours, where we estimate the total cost for Police time at £100 per hour (including staff, stations, cars etc).

Total Police cost = £3000.

Bryan had legal aid, which we shall assume to be £200. During the court case, approximately 45 minutes, I counted three magistrates (volunteers) and seven staff members in the court. Assume each member of staff costs £30 per hour (salary, pensions, HR etc), then we can add £210 for staff cost, plus another £40 for running the courtroom for the hour. Let’s not forget the burly private security guard that escorted Bryan to and from the court, sitting in the dock to ensure good behaviour, another £50 perhaps.

Total court cost = £500.

Assuming Bryan serves 10 weeks, the current cost of prison is around £800 per week.

Total Prison cost = £8000

Once released from prison, Bryan will be added to a probation officer’s caseload. This probation officer will probably have up to fifty other cases, thus allocating around 2 hours per month to Bryan, where we assume probation costs £100 per hour (staff, buildings, etc). Even if his attendance was as poor as before, the probation officer will still spend time preparing for meetings and chasing up to find Bryan.

Total Probation cost = £2400

During Bryan’s time on probation, he may be asked to attend drug rehabilitation courses, being offered support with finding a job. These services will be commissioned by local probation or local authorities, where we can assume Bryan receives £750 worth of support.

Total Intervention cost = £750

This bring the total cost from crime reported to finishing his sentence to £14,900 (including the £250 paid to the victim, eventually).

That’s 30 times the cost of the crime.

Given this poultry amount,  it is unsurprising after Bryan’s short sentence, in which time he may lose any employment and housing, is 60% likely to reoffend.

Does this process make sense? Did the victim, the restaurateur, want Bryan to go to prison or was he a well known local tragic individual that needed help? Could we have dealt with Bryan in a different way?

Alternative Solutions

Let’s think about three different options:

  1. The Court recommends that Bryan attend a 10 week drug rehab centre instead of prison.
  2. The Court consults with victim and agrees to:
    • Put Bryan on an electronic tag for 6 months, not allowed with 500 metres of the restaurant and has to be at home between the hours 9pm and 7am.
    • 50 hours of community payback work for the council to earn the £500 to repay the restaurateur.
  3. The Police decides, in consultation with the victim, to deal with the case out of court:
    • Bryan completes 50 hours of work for the council to earn the £500 to repay the restaurateur.
    • Police send Bryan to drug rehab for 10 weeks.
    • Bryan writes a letter of apology to the restaurateur.




Rehabilitative %

Current situation £14,900         £1,150 7.72%
Option 1 – Court, then 10 weeks of rehab £16,150 £10,000 61.92%
Option 2 – Court, then tagging and unpaid work £10,050 £750 7.46%
Option 3 – No Court, unpaid work and rehab £17,800 £10,000 56.18%

The scenarios above show that:

  • The traditional ‘Police – Court – Prison – Probation’ route is very costly.
  • The earlier the decision is made (i.e. with Police), the more costs can be reduced.
  • Prison alternative are more more cost effective.
  • There may be alternative methods of resolutions, that would be significantly cheaper.

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