Conviction by computer is go, confirms UK Ministry of Justice

What could possibly go wrong with this madcap scheme?

Petty criminals in Britain will soon be found guilty and sentenced by computers, under new government plans.

Originally floated last year in a public consultation scheme, the UK government has now announced it will press on with its scheme to persuade low-level lawbreakers that pleading guilty online is a good idea.

"Under this proposal, defendants who opt into the online procedure and plead guilty will be offered the option to accept a pre-determined penalty (including the payment of any appropriate compensation and costs), be convicted and pay the amount immediately," said the government paper published earlier today on the scheme.

Railway and tram fare evasion and unlicensed fishing are the two categories of criminal offence that the Ministry of Justice wants to try this out with. In England and Wales one needs a rod licence to go fishing.

Train fare evasion is nominally a private matter between the privatised operating company and the passenger but is enforced through archaic 19th century laws that make it a criminal offence. Private prosecutions are regularly brought in the magistrates' courts by rail companies.

Defendants persuaded to plead guilty online will automatically be issued a fine, prosecution costs, ordered to stump up an amount for compensation and be made to pay the appropriate victim surcharge, which is effectively a tax levied on convicted criminals. Some of the proceeds are paid into a fund used to support various charities for victims in the criminal justice system.

Of the 280 people who responded to the consultation about the plans, 59 per cent agreed and 20 per cent disagreed. Some were not happy with the plans at all, and the government noted this:

Some respondents who opposed the principle raised concerns around the lack of judicial involvement in the procedure. These respondents suggested that in some cases there might be mitigating circumstances which a judge should take into consideration when setting an appropriate sentence. Similarly, some respondents have raised concerns about 'sentencing by algorithm', the idea that decisions currently made by judges will now be made by computer programs.

The official response was: "We have considered the responses in full and think it is possible to prosecute low-level cases via an automatic online conviction procedure and impose an automated, standard penalty in these cases without compromising the principles of our justice system.

"The automatic online conviction procedure will contribute to the government's aim of delivering a service that is just, proportionate, accessible to all and works better for everyone," the statement continued, adding that only defendants who choose to plead guilty, offer no mitigating circumstances and who opt into the automated process will be able to be prosecuted in this manner.

So that's alright, then.

Under the sketchy details available in the consultation response [PDF], the system appears to be designed so the guilty party clicks "guilty" on the screen and makes a credit card payment online there and then.

It is not hard to imagine this system rapidly evolving into a central government version of local council parking fine systems, which typically use underhand tactics such as imposing fines of several hundred pounds that are "discounted" to £80 or so if paid within a certain period of time – say, two weeks. Appeals mechanisms against these systems, which must be provided by law, are normally designed so their time scales run well beyond the "discount" payment period, acting as a deterrent to people who challenge wrongly issued tickets.

Similarly, it is not hard to imagine this system being deliberately weighted against defendants, with far higher costs being payable if one opts for a proper trial in a court. Such moves have already been taking place in the criminal justice system, with people acquitted of crimes in the magistrates' courts having had the amount of their recoverable costs capped at paltry legal aid rates – and were even, for a time, banned altogether from recovering any costs in the Crown courts.

With the British state merrily tilting the justice system further and further against defendants, it is a surprise that more than half the respondents to the consultation were in favour of conviction by computer.

Still, if you're rich enough, you can just pay to make the bad men go away. ®

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