The challenge of downsizing criminal justice

Richard Garside
Thursday, 22 May 2014

Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight at this important event.

Before I get on to the substance of what I will be saying today, a quick observation on the speech earlier today by the Home Secretary to the Police Federation annual conference.

There has been a lot of coverage of her announcement that the Police Federation will no longer receive public funding. She also listed a number of recent events that have contributed to what she described as 'a time of great difficulty for policing'.

This is what she said:

In the last few years, we have seen the Leveson Inquiry. The appalling conclusions of the Hillsborough independent panel. The death of Ian Tomlinson and the sacking of PC Harwood. The ongoing inquiry by an independent panel into the murder of Daniel Morgan. The first sacking of a chief constable for gross misconduct in modern times. The investigation of more than ten senior officers for acts of alleged misconduct and corruption.

Allegations of rigged recorded crime statistics. The sacking of PCs Keith Wallis, James Glanville and Gillian Weatherley after "Plebgate". Worrying reports by the inspectorate about stop and search and domestic violence. The Herne Review into the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstration Squad. The Ellison Review into allegations of corruption during the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Further allegations that the police sought to smear Stephen's family. Soon, there will be another judge-led public inquiry into policing.

When I read her speech earlier today it reminded me of a famous remark made by Sir Robert Mark, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police during the 1970s: 'a good police force is one that catches more crooks than it employs'.

Part of developing a future agenda for the criminal justice in general, as well as the individual agencies such as the police, involves ensuring these very powerful public bodies are democratically accountable. It is also important that they treat all those citizens who have dealings with them - whether witness or victims, suspects or convictees - with dignity and respect.

To achieve this our criminal justice agencies need to be operating at the right scale, and in the right ways. Currently they are far too big and intrusive.

There is considerable scope to downsize criminal justice. A reduction in criminal justice spending, if this reduction is complemented by a comparable reduction in the size and scope of the criminal justice agencies affected, a realistic, and important, policy objective.

There is significant research evidence indicating that levels of victimisation are related to underlying social arrangements, rather than to the interventions of criminal justice agencies. A big criminal justice system does not make us safer. Indeed, it can make us more vulnerable.

In essence, the question of the rates of harm and victimisation in society and the question of the size, scope, reach and operation of the different parts of the criminal justice system need to be separated.

Downsizing criminal justice

Current criminal justice spending reductions are being implemented following previous, and generous, real terms spending increases.

Spending on the police in England and Wales grew in real terms by 50 percent between 1999 and 2009.

In the case of the Prison and Probation Services there was a real terms spending growth of 36 percent between 2004 and 2009.

These generous spending increases financed growth in these services, though this growth was uneven. Police numbers grew significantly while their caseload stabilised. Prison numbers and probation caseloads grew more quickly than budget growth, putting significant strain on both services. Frontline probation staff numbers declined after 2006 while caseloads grew.

The current squeeze on public spending presents an opportunity to resize the various criminal justice agencies in a manner that delivers real social benefit and leaves those services in better shape.

There is little evidence of the current government, or the opposition, embracing this challenge. Both appear to favour maintaining the current size of the justice system, or even to expand it in the case of prisons, on shrinking budgets, while chipping away at legal aid in particular as a means of finding savings. The long-term effects of this on staff morale, system effectiveness and justice are difficult to predict, but are likely to be significant.

What reduces victimisation levels?

My starting point is that the main influences on levels of harm and victimisation are social arrangements – for example rates of wealth and poverty, levels of employment and unemployment, unequal power relations – rather than the criminal justice system and its individual agencies.

One of the clearest demonstrations of this comes from an assessment of homicide rates. There is a pretty clear evidence base that higher levels of homicide were associated with higher rates of poverty.

This is true both internationally, and within the UK. Research by Danny Dorling, for instance, found that the rising trend in the number of homicides between 1979 and 1999 was very unfairly distributed. Those living in the richest neighbourhoods saw their risk of being a victim of homicide fall. Those living in the poorest neighbourhoods saw their risk of being a victim of homicide go up sixfold.

In contrast, evidence for the effect of criminal justice interventions on official crime rates is poor.

The best case that can be made for criminal justice impact on crime levels is probably prison in relation to the United States. To achieve this, the United States has relied on policies of hyperincarceration and aggressive policing strategies disproportionately targeting black people and the most economically disadvantaged.

This does not mean it is not possible to make meaningful interventions in response to victimisation. They do, however, need to be the right ones.

For instance, our comprehensive review of gun and knife crime strategies for the Children’s Commissioner for England cast doubt on the effectiveness of police-led approaches and found that effective strategies typically were holistic, engaging with the big questions of disadvantage and social exclusion, as well as addressing individual, familial and neighbourhood problems.

Research published a couple of years ago found an interesting correlation between the early 1970s raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16 and reduced rates of property crime. The trend towards more young people staying on for longer in education is a good thing in itself. It might, incidentally, also result in fewer of them getting into trouble with the police.

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies’ 2012 report, Reducing the numbers in custody, compared a number of countries’ social and economic arrangements and their levels of imprisonment and victimisation. Countries with lower rates of poverty and inequality and more generous social safety nets were typically safer, had lower rates of violence and lower rates of imprisonment.

In essence

I am in favour of a criminal justice system that is responsive to the needs of victims and witness and treats suspects, defendants and convictees with respect and dignity. To achieve this, it needs to be smaller, less intrusive, more focussed on care and support over punishment.

The criminal justice system is good at punishing certain individuals and groups. It fails to prevent social problems from arising, or to resolve those that occur. It is possible to deliver lower levels of victimisation and a smaller criminal justice system at the same time.

Our current over reliance as a country on criminal justice interventions crowds out more innovative, just and effective policy and practice solutions to the problems our society faces.

Related resources

Submission to Justice Committee Inquiry into crime reduction policies (22 January, 2014)