Criminal justice in times of austerity

Rebecca Roberts
Sunday, 15 November 2015

This an abridged summary of a paper presented to the 'Policing the crisis' conference organised by Defend the Right to Protest

Over the last thirty years the criminal justice system has grown to unprecedented levels. In recent years, however, austerity and central government funding cuts have hit the courts, police, prison and probation services. For those working to address social harm in society, this presents us with a number of challenges but also opportunities.

I will briefly outline some key trends in criminal justice and then offer some reflections on the challenges and opportunities posed by austerity.

Key trends

The New Labour years were those of relative plenty for criminal justice agencies. We witnessed a rapid and steep rise in criminal justice spending, staffing and numbers of people criminalised and punished. Some of these trends preceded 1997, but in summary, they pumped up the system and created a criminal justice on steroids. During this period, we also witnessed a ‘criminalisation’ of social policy where welfare and social institutions became more punitive, exclusionary with benefits and support based on conditionality. 

Some key trends are outlined below.

  • Criminal justice expenditure soared under Labour, followed by an 18% real terms decline in central government expenditure between 2010 and 2014 under the coalition.
  • Between 1993 and 2010, the prison population in England and Wales nearly doubled – from around 44,500 to 85,000. Since 2010 the numbers of people in prison have remained fairly stable, but with recent announcements of a ‘prison building revolution’, it is possible that we are set for significant growth in the years ahead.
  • In the ten years between 1999 and 2009 police budgets rose, in real terms, by nearly 50 percent. In 1998 there were just under 125,000 police officers in England and Wales – by 2009 it had gone up to 142,000.  Police numbers are now on the decline. Between 2010 and 2014, we have seen an 11.4% decline in England and Wales.
  • Under the Coalition government, expenditure and staffing fell across police, prisons and probation.
  • For a number of years the remit of the police expanded. This mission creep is evident in recent figures highlighting that less than 20% of police call are ‘crime’ related.


It’s a complex picture. However, in summary, the figures tell us a story of growth followed shrinkage – and this has been uneven and inconsistent. New Labour pumped up the system and extended the reach of criminal justice and punishment. This was followed by cutbacks under the Coalition, many of which will continue under the Conservatives.

An emerging theme is one of a disinvestment in, and dismantling of, many criminal justice institutions and services. This is largely being driven by budgetary pressures rather than because of a recognition that a large, punitive and intrusive criminal justice system might be inherently pointless or problematic.

Challenges of austerity

In the context of current social and economic conditions, we are witnessing growing levels of social need and distress in society – with fewer avenues for support. Both inside and outside the criminal justice system we see an increasing focus on controlling and monitoring people rather than meeting needs.

Within the criminal justice system, conditions are deteriorating against a backdrop of demoralised and overworked staff. Self-harm, violence and suicide in prisons have dramatically increased. We see rising levels of distress experienced by criminalised people – coupled with crude and aggressive policing tactics.

Defendants now have reduced access to proper legal representation – and an incentive to plead guilty. There are fewer avenues of support for those people who are victims of harm and violence.

At times of deteriorating conditions across the 'justice' system, campaigners and reformers become ever more focused on ‘firefighting’ within the system and to help people survive. There is a risk this occupies our energies and diverts attention from challenging wider systemic issues. 

In reflecting on the deteriorating conditions in criminal justice I was also reminded of parallels with NHS. The NHS has experienced a disinvestment in services - perhaps to such a level that involvement of the private sector seems necessary, appealing and more likely to be welcomed by the public. Perhaps this kind of thinking is behind the proposals to build nine new prisons - and a sudden interest in a renewed focus on rehabilitation and education. I’m not convinced this is about helping people in prison.

Rehabilitation and support services could and should be part of the wider social and welfare infrastructure.  Prisons are not best placed to provide access to jobs, education, drug treatment, mental health. 

Opportunities under austerity?

All of the above has a human cost. Many people at the sharp end of the cuts will be feeling abandoned with fewer avenues outside and inside the criminal justice system for support. The criminal justice system has always been very poor at helping victims and now there is diminishing support for those experiencing violence, trauma and theft.

What do we do with those experiences of abandonment and feelings of anger or frustration? One option is to argue that we need to improve criminal justice, to build it up, to improve conditions and make it work better.

Or, we use it as an opportunity to open up discussion about the building blocks for a safer, healthier society. The criminal justice system has never been very good and protecting us from harm, chaos and disorder. The cuts to police, prisons and the courts offer an opportunity to rethink and rebalance public policy.

It presents us with an entry point into a very necessary and important discussion about social and economic conditions – and the local and state-led infrastructure necessary to create safer communities. Youth and social workers, health, education, local authorities should be the default response to many issues currently treated as criminal problems.

I'll end by posing two questions for discussion. Firstly, how do we reverse our reliance on the criminal justice system as a failed institution for adequately dealing with social problems? Secondly, what progressive, non-repressive interventions or responses are possible?

Rebeca Roberts is Senior Policy Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies