Burglary is not a serious offence. Or rather, it is not considered a serious offence by the criminal justice system. The violation of the sanctity of a person’s home, of a family’s refuge, of a child’s bedroom, invariably forms the bedrock of judicial admonishment in sentencing remarks, but the reality is common knowledge among anyone suffering a passing acquaintanceship with the criminal process. Burglaries just aren’t that important. They are too ubiquitous (only shoplifting and possessing Class B drugs appear before the Crown Courts more frequently). They fall within the lowest categorisation of offences for the purpose of the CPS Advocate Panel, meaning that they can be, and usually are, prosecuted by the least experienced prosecutors. The cases attract among the lowest fees, both for prosecutors and defence lawyers. The Sentencing Council Guidelines, which courts are required to follow when passing sentence, pitch the starting point for some domestic burglaries at a community order. Of those sentenced to custody, most will be released within 12 months.
It is of course right that there are other, more serious, offences. It is right that there will be defendants for whom and cases in which custody is, for a variety of reasons, not appropriate. It is further right that finite resources must be proportionately targeted.
But every now and then, I despair at the obvious disconnect between the system and the people whom it purports to protect. At how frequently the system is blind, or wilfully ignorant, to the devastation that these offences can wreak.
Count the failings in this recent case.
A house was burgled, and various high value items were stolen, including the victim’s car. An hour later, police found the car, and arrested its two occupants – the defendants. In the back of the vehicle were other items taken in the burglary, including a TV, on which were found the fingerprints of one of the defendants. A set of circumstances pointing, one might feel, fairly strongly to the defendants being the burglars.
So what happened?
- For reasons unexplained, the Crown Prosecution Service elected to charge one of the defendants not with burglary, but with “being carried in a vehicle without the owner’s consent”, a minor summary-only matter carrying a maximum sentence of 6 months’ imprisonment.
- The second defendant was charged with burglary, but when a Judge criticised the CPS’ decision to under-charge the first defendant, the CPS responded by dropping the burglary against the second defendant as well.
- The CPS has a policy of writing “Victim Letters” explaining the progress of a case. Having dropped the burglary charges, the CPS proceeded to send a letter purporting to tell the victim that three men had been convicted of the burglary of his house.
- I say “purported to tell this victim”, because the CPS in fact sent this erroneous letter to the wrong person – to a victim in an entirely different burglary.
- This second victim, having received a letter informing her that three men had been convicted of burgling her house, took an unpaid day off from work and turned up at court to watch the sentence hearing. Prosecuting counsel had to break the news that, far from there being three hoodlums convicted of the burglary of her house, enquiries suggested that the police had months ago closed the investigation as unsolved without bothering to tell the victim.
- The second victim had told the police at the time of the burglary about CCTV which would in all likelihood have captured the incident. Nothing was done about this. Months later, this CCTV will no longer be in existence.
A catalogue of cock-ups. To the police, this was just another burglary. To the automaton sending the Victim Letter, this was just another victim. To the CPS, just one of 14,000 burglaries they will charge this year. But to the people whose lives were invaded, an inexplicable systemic failure on every level that will have violently stripped their faith in the justice system.
Nothing will be done. No lessons will be learned. Because this story is not unusual. Not one bit of it will catch anyone in-the-know by surprise. It is seen every day, in every courtroom, condemned by every judge, unexplained by every prosecutor, exploited by every defendant. The chaos is not particular to burglaries – it is sprayed across virtually every prosecution – but in an age of police and CPS budget-slashing and staff-cutting, it’s the cases at the bottom of the pile, and the victims of those unfashionable, unimportant crimes, that suffer the most.