Updates on information retention in the UK

Two important decisions have been announced in the UK today regarding the retention of information in the criminal justice area.

Firstly the Court of Appeal has ruled against an information tribunal ruling that data on old minor convictions must be deleted from police computers. The Court found that retaining information for police operational needs was far easier to justify than disclosing the information to others. To this end Lord Justice Waller stated

If the police say rationally and reasonably that convictions, however old or minor, have a value in the work that they do, that should, in effect, be the end of the matter

The case was brought because under the Data Protection Act which requires that information be relevant, up to date and not excessive. Five people had lodged complaints after their records showed up in checks when they applied for jobs. The type of conviction at the heart of the case were minor, and for the most part committed by the people when they were juveniles.

Under the present police policy, criminal records can remain on the national computer for up to 100 years.

The Association of Chief Police Officers welcomed the decision, clearly relieved that the Court of Appeal had decided in favour of retention of even minor data:

This data assists police officers in their work in preventing crime and protecting the public, and the loss of such valuable information would have been detrimental to that.

The issue is now to be subject to a review of the criminal conviction retention policy, to be carried out by an independent adviser following a request by the home secretary.

The second decision is that made by the United Kingdom’s Home Office to abandon its proposals to retain the DNA profiles of innocent people on the national database. In 2007 it had announced its intention to keep the DNA profiles of those arrested ‑ but never convicted of a crime ‑ for between 6 – 12 years, depending on the seriousness of the offence. However, the proposal is not to be included in the policing and crime bill currently going through the British Parliament.

Doubt had already been raised about its viability following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S. AND MARPER v. THE UNITED KINGDOM, 4/12/2008, (Applications nos. 30562/04 and 30566/04) in which it held that the schemes for the retention of such samples in the UK is contrary to the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the European Convention.

As reported today in the Guardian, a Home Office spokesman said:

We have now completed a public consultation on proposals to ensure the right people are on the database as well as considering when people should come off. Those proposals were grounded in the research and allowed us to respond to the judgment of the European court of human rights both swiftly and effectively.
The government will take the most expedient route to address the issue as soon as possible in order to comply with the European court’s judgment.

The decision comes after many felt that the UK government would have faced defeat in the House of Lords if it had kept to its DNA database plan. whilst the home Office spokesperson stated that they hoped to bring forward “further provisions” on DNA retention in the next policing and crime bill it will be interesting to see if the issue is considered significant enough to warrant another outing. Particularly as concern over data storage/privacy in the UK continues to mount.

Prison populations and sentencing reform

In the news yesterday – the prison population had passed the 4000 mark for the first time the history of the State. In fact it has since dropped back down below that dramatic figure but remains above the bed capacity level of 3,947. The Irish Penal Reform Trust‘s press release on this news valuably highlights the figures charting the steady rise in the prison population:

To place this level of imprisonment in context, the Irish prison population was just 750 in 1970; over 1,200 in 1980; 2,100 in 1990; 2,948 in 2000. The immediate consequence of this increase is to exacerbate an already critical overcrowding situation.

These figures need to be seen in the light of the report on Mountjoy Prison by Judge Michael Reilly, the inspector of prisons. His report was brought forward because of concerns about the dangers created by cronic overcrowding, not least of those being the fact that lives were being put at risk.

Overcrowding in Irish prisons has been described as cronic and acute for many years now, yet little signioficant action has been taken. And prison expansion is not the answer.

The short term answer is clearly put in the IPRT Directors Blog:

The Prison Service must set clear safe custody limits in each of the prisons and ensure that dangerous overcrowding levels are not allowed to develop. In the short term, numbers can be reduced by careful and structured use of temporary release.

But longer term, the issue is about sentencing. Indeed, Fine Gael yesterday called for “a radical overhaul of the State’s sentencing system”:

“I am calling on Minister Ahern to radically overhaul his approach to incarceration and to focus on community service for minor offences. With each prison place now costing almost €100,000 annually, the Minister must review the benefit of handing down thousands of minor sentences annually.”

According to Fine Gael the govenment needs to consider alternatives to custody, particularly in the case of non-violent offences on the basis that community service “is less expensive for the taxpayer and allows offenders to put something back into the community”.

It is good to see that in addition to proposing sentencing reform, Fine Gael have also now recognised that prison does not work:

“It is clear that prison in Ireland is enormously expensive and has little deterrent or rehabilitative value. Its effectiveness is further undermined by the use of early release as a means of facilitating the committal of ever more prisoners. Ireland has a revolving door prison system that sees almost 50 per cent of prisoners back inside within four years of their release. This is not sustainable…”

Ultimnately any discussion on the state of Ireland’s prison system must be done within the overall context of sentencing and criminalisation. The prison population has been rising for many reasons, not least of which is an iuncrease in a refusal of bail, an increase in lengths of sentence and increased levels of prosecution.