According to a recent article by Gareth Corfield in The Register, a British publication, an algorithm is being implemented in Britain to allow petty criminals to opt-in to a computer model that provides instant plea agreements and penalties, along with an online fine payment system. As Mr. Corfield puts it: “What could possibly go wrong with this madcap scheme?”
“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.”
While it certainly would free up the courts for more serious crimes, there are many reasons why this is a poor idea. Not only will judges be unaware of any mitigating circumstances, the movement away from personal contact with the defendant is contrary to the role the courts play in our social mores.
Some of the critiques by dissenters highlight this concern.
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.
But more than that, there is a ritual to our legal system. The judge sits in a ritual robe, separate and apart from the other courtroom participants. This provides an aura of authority. Legal counsel are separated by the “bar” and ordinary citizens not before the court are excluded from this area. The same principal sets any jury off in the “jury box.” Typically, the jury is to one side of the judge, and situated between the judge and the defendant and prosecutor. This conveys an element of neutrality; the jury is aligned with neither the judge nor the litigants.
The seemingly archaic ritual that is acted out in the courtroom creates or emphasizes the importance of the law and the judicial system. All of that is lost if a criminal — no matter how trivial the matter — can sit behind their computer at home and simply click and pay. What little respect we have for the legal system will be further eroded.
The official response of the British government seems to miss the point of going to court. It is a solemn occasion. Yet the, according to Corfield, the British official response to the conviction-by-algorithm 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.
What is being missed is the opportunity for fairness, for appeal and for the law to maintain its unique dignity and stature. What will be missed is the humanity in law.
While some may think that humanity in law is an archaic idea in its own right, Schlesinger Conrad does not agree. Most of the firms clients are comforatble calling when they need guidance, or help with other problems. And Schlesinger Conrad makes a point of understanding the cases from the human perspective.
If you need help with a legal problem, and want to be treated like a human being, please contact the firm. Or, just give a call to 602-812-3661.
A human will answer the phone.