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Justice system 'lackadaisical or nonchalant'

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A report has shown that improved data sharing between prisons and police would help stop a repetition of the mistaken release of a man who committed manslaughter the same day.

Anthony Peart was released on 29 July 2005 from the privately run Forest Bank prison in Pendlebury near Manchester, after charges against him for alleged unlawful sex with a 15-year-old were dropped. This was despite there being a separate arrest warrant from Liverpool crown court out for him in connection with an alleged burglary.

He travelled to London, where he stabbed Richard Whelan to death after Whelan had asked him to stop throwing chips at passengers. He was convicted of manslaughter.

The report (pdf) by HM Inspectorates of the Crown Prosecution Service, Constabulary, Court Administration and Prisons, does not blame any single action or failure to act. But it recommends that the Home Office should provide all prisons with access to the Police National Computer (PNC) and amend existing instructions for the reception and discharge of prisoners, particularly in relation to outstanding charges and warrants.

Prisons are not allowed to hold a prisoner after the relevant charge is dropped, but the report recommends that software is introduced to match outstanding warrants against prisoners. This would allow a police force to issue a warrant for arrest for use at the moment the prisoner is released.

The report also recommends that the Home Office and the National Offender Management Service commissions an urgent study into allowing some prison staff to update details on the PNC, and to amend instructions so that data from the PNC on outstanding charges and warrants can be passed to prison systems.

It also notes "a lackadaisical or nonchalant approach within the CJS (criminal justice system) to many routine aspects of the handling of cases". A custody officer at South East Surrey Magistrates' Court updated a local system with deliberately incorrect information on the unlawful sex charge to clear a screen on its system, resulting in the PNC saying that the defendant had been remanded on bail.

"This contributed to the lack of awareness by other authorities of the defendant's status and to the chain of events that led to the defendant being released, although it was not the sole contributing factor," notes the report.

Surrey Police's processes at that time meant that only first remands (sending back to custody) were recorded on the PNC, but not subsequent ones, so the initial error remained. The report recommends that all police forces ban such "predictive resulting" and provide updates on all adjudications from the courts, but adds that although Surrey Police has improved its procedures on updating PNC data on bail, it still does not enter updates on remands without bail conditions.

Responding to the report, the attorney general Vera Baird said: "The report makes a number of detailed recommendations, most of which the government is able to accept immediately." She added that a cross agency group will take forward the detailed work.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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