The British Secretary of State for Justice last week announced that the mandatory ‘criminal court charge’ that had been in place since April of this year is to be scrapped. The criminal court charge is a sum to be paid by people who have been convicted of a crime, ranging from 150 to 1200 pounds, and comes on top of any fines and various other costs. Failure to pay can lead to detention.
The “U-turn”, as The Guardian called it, of the Justice department follows months of protest by, among others, magistrates (more than a hundred magistrates resigned) and the Howard League, a British charity advocating penal reform. The Howard League denounced the charge because it would “penalise the poor” and collected numerous examples of people living in poverty or who are homeless after being confronted with charges of several hundreds of pounds for stealing a pack of Mars bars worth 75p or for begging in a car parking.
In the meantime the Dutch Justice department has recently not made a U-turn, but rather a moderate bend on a similar matter. The government scrapped a plan to charge people sentenced to prison to contribute towards the cost of their imprisonment. The government acknowledges the consequences for people’s financial and social status and the burden on municipalities to administer the payment schemes.
However, a plan to let people who are convicted of a crime pay for part of the cost of the criminal procedure – comparable to the British criminal court charge – is still in place, although the sums are to be reduced.
It is unfortunate that the Dutch government is willing to go forward with the charge despite protests from various organisations, among which probation services and magistrates. There is no denying that implementing such a charge will affect poor people more than affluent people and thus in effect, even though the charge is not meant to be a punishment, punishes people with low incomes more than people with higher incomes. In Dutch this is referred to as ‘klassenjustitie’ (class justice).
Promising payment schemes for those who cannot afford to pay the charge is not a solution to the problem of disparities in criminal procedures. In addition, we can now evaluate the pros and cons of the criminal court charge in the U.K. The fact that the British Justice department is changing its course, in an otherwise not so mild penal climate, should be reason enough for the Dutch government to reconsider implementing the charge here.
At the very least, it should be considered whether the charge can be adjusted to people’s level of income. However, as I have argued on this Blog before, as long as people’s chances of being prosecuted and sentenced seem related to their socioeconomic status and ethnic background, it would be best for the Dutch government to also make a U-turn and scrap the plan altogether.