Police mugshots to be used to boost fines enforcement

Magistrates’ courts are to have access to police mugshots for the first time to help them identify wilful defaulters of criminal fines when the offender’s identity is disputed, the Department of Constitutional Affairs announced on Tuesday. The Government has tabled an amendment to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill to be debated today.

A press release from the DCA reads:

Estimates suggest the proposed new measures could result in up to £1.8 million extra being collected each year in outstanding fines. They are part of an ongoing drive to give court enforcement staff similar tools to police to pursue fine defaulters, especially persistent and hard to find offenders.

This measure builds upon authority given to enforcement officers late last year to help them recover more court imposed fines, including the ability to use reasonable force if necessary to enter property.

Courts Minister Christopher Leslie said:

“It is ridiculous that court officials, trying to ensure compliance with sentences, have not had this basic tool to help them catch the criminal defaulter. It is clearly right to change the law and close this loophole.

In up to 13,500 cases each year fines are not enforced, or their collection is delayed, because the offender denies their identity. That means potentially £1.8 million pounds that should be returned to victims of crime and the taxpaying public.

“Court imposed fines are not a soft option and this proposed legislative reform reinforces that. They are a credible penalty.

“The Government is determined to be one step ahead of criminals and
whilst this is a relatively simple measure to introduce, it could make an enormous difference to effective enforcement and, consequently, the level of confidence people have in the criminal justice system.

“The beauty of this proposed new measure is that we can tap into an existing resource without reinventing the wheel. It builds on the raft of measures introduced over the past 18 months and sustains the dramatic improvements which have subsequently been made to fines enforcement.

“The public wants and expects justice to be done and done swiftly and this goes a long way towards achieving that.”

Disputes over an offender’s identity can occur in up to 15 per cent of cases or 13,500 every year. That equates to up to £1.8 million annually, taking the average fine as £134.

Enforcement officers are often unable to execute warrants at the first attempt and have to return to try again. This means the execution of a court sentence is not carried out immediately, which adds to the costs of the court and undermines the fine as a credible sentencing option.

Maria Wallis, ACPO spokesperson on criminal justice and Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, said:

“This reform shows joined up justice at its best – police and courts enforcement staff working closely together to increase victim satisfaction with the justice system, ensuring court orders are obeyed and sending a message to offenders that crime doesn’t pay.

“The measure could also help in executing other warrants such as distress and community penalty breach warrants. Sometimes these are not enforced because the person’s identity is in dispute.

“The community rightly expects time, effort and resources to go into investigating criminal activity, bringing offenders to court and ensuring that penalties are adhered to.”

Notes to Editors
1. Current laws allow a mugshot to be supplied to the courts for prosecution purposes but not for enforcement.

2. The mugshot supplied to magistrates’ courts will be a copy of the photograph by police of offenders when they are charged.

3. The fines collection rate has risen from a national average of 55 per cent 18 months ago to 81 per cent currently.

4. A distress warrant allows enforcement staff to take goods to the value of the fine.

5. A community penalty breach warrant is issued when the offender has failed to perform their community penalty. Community penalties are issued for serious offences like theft by deception, handling stolen goods, assault and public order offences.

6. In 2003/04, 40,523 community penalty breach warrants were issued across England and Wales. Of those, 15,145 were executed or withdrawn within the target 28 days.

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