Criminal justice 'transformation': a wolf in sheep's clothing?

Rebecca Roberts offers a word of caution on recent calls for a prison building programme and expansion of electronic monitoring.

By: 
Rebecca Roberts
Date: 
Wednesday, 14 October, 2015

Following last week’s Conservative party conference a number of commentators expressed optimism about the tone and emphasis placed by David Cameron and Michael Gove on the need for ‘transformation’. Both called for a shift in thinking and policy to address the pressures faced within the criminal justice system and prisons. While the narrative was about redemption, education and rehabilitation, scratch beneath the surface and these reforms may well turn out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

The reality is likely to be an expansion of punishment driven in partnership with the private sector.

Build new prisons – why not?  New jails are marketed to communities as offering a ‘boost’ to the local economy. However, I am yet to be convinced that new jails are socially and economically valuable infrastructure projects. At their very centre, prisons are unhealthy and damaging places for both prisoners and prison officers. New prisons may offer modern and cleaner buildings but they also expand capacity across the estate, facilitating an increase in the numbers of people incarcerated.

The proposal for an expansion of electronic monitoring as an ‘alternative’ to prison should also be treated with caution. As a recent analysis of alternatives to custody conducted by the Centre has shown, they often form part of a process of 'net-widening'.  There are also concerns about the role of the private sector in the delivery of electronic monitoring, for example, the recent Serious Fraud Office investigations into overcharging by G4S and Serco.

Policing is the entry point into the system and a service increasingly overwhelmed by meeting the demands produced by shrinking social and welfare institutions. It should come as no surprise that prisons have become a dumping ground for people who experience a wide range of health, mental health, learning and economic difficulties. As former Greater Manchester Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy recently argued, if we need fewer police and more social workers then government should plan for that. Such an approach could lead to a radical downsizing of the prison estate with the closure of old prisons and no need to build replacements. 

Let's also be clear about the limited availability of social insurance and support for 'victims' of law-breaking. Through the Centre's Justice Matters project, we have highlighted how criminal justice crowds out other, more innovative, just and effective policy and practice solutions to the problems our society faces. It is good at punishing certain individuals and groups. It fails to prevent social problems from arising, and it it is poor at resolving and repairing harms.

We should not confuse criminal justice reform, including the expansion of electronic monitoring, with the very necessary and urgent social policy transformation that is required to respond to tackle the burgeoning criminal justice population. If as a society, we are serious about tackling social harm, we need to look outside of criminal justice for the answers. 

Rebecca Roberts, Senior Associate - Policy, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies