The decline of criminal justice?

Rebecca Roberts
Monday, 24 June 2013

Scanning through the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Criminal Justice Statistics: Quarterly Update to September 2012’  criminal justice seems to be shrinking.

In the 12 months ending September 2012, 1.86 million individuals were given an out of court disposal or were proceeded against at court – an 8.4 per cent reduction on the previous year.  Convictions are down. Defendants proceeded against are down. Out of court disposals are down. So what is going on here?

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies’ UK Justice Policy Review (2013) outlines key patterns in criminal justice activity, spending and policy since the Coalition government came to power.  Looking at the period of 2011 to 2012, Garside and Silvestri (2013) explain how the government has continued efforts to alter the structure and size of key institutions – ‘heralding what some argue is a reconfiguration of the criminal justice landscape’. Cuts in public spending have resulted in reductions in criminal justice staffing, especially in policing and probation.

This reconfiguration of criminal justice structures are reflected in the criminal justice statistics. Figure 1.4 of the MoJ report shows that over a ten year period there has been an overall decline in convictions of 11.7 per cent. In last 12 months (Figure 4.3) there has been a drop in convictions by all offence types of 6.8 per cent; notably drops in sexual offence convictions (5.3); 6.3 per cent in drug offences and 4.4 per cent drop in robbery. A simplistic reading of these figures is that certain types of harmful behaviours  must have declined.  Indeed, crime surveys and police recorded crime have indicated drops in some categories (read more on this from Richard Garside). Conviction data, however, tells us more about police and prosecutorial activities as opposed to levels of law breaking. What we seem to be witnessing is a recession in criminal justice activity by state agencies – prisons, probation, police and the courts.

Elsewhere I have argued for a radical reduction in the size and scope of criminal justice and the development of social justice alternatives to punishment and repression. On the face of it, the downward trends in criminal justice activity and spending should seem like good news. However, we do need to be mindful of some of the consequences of a receding criminal justice system.

First, is the impact on access to justice. Cuts in legal aid will restrict access of some of the most vulnerable groups in society to legal defence, redress and due process – without any adequate alternative in place. Second, cuts to criminal justice budgets are likely to lead to cuts in drug treatment and educational programmes that should perhaps have been provided by health and education ministries in the first place.

As workloads increase for the falling numbers of criminal justice staff there is a risk of declining conditions. Is it possible to run a cheaper, smaller criminal justice system? – probably, yes. But it is likely to be more harmful, more punitive and more unequal in how it goes about its business.

All of this is happening in the context of a more punitive welfare state where access to benefits has become more restricted and conditional. Against a backdrop of high unemployment and declining incomes the regulation of the poor becomes more sharply focused.

As criminal justice shrinks, standards in the system and access to formal ‘justice’ will decline. This should be of immediate concern for those campaigning on behalf of victims, defendants and people in prison. It will be tempting to resort solely to campaigns that call for better criminal justice operations. These campaigns, while put forward with the best intentions can reinforce the idea that criminal justice is the best place to deliver justice – and have the unintended effect of being expansionist.

A criminal justice system in decline throws up some potential problems, but also offers opportunities. It should form a basis for dialogue about social justice solutions to violence, inequalities and harms.

This blog first appeared on the Reclaim Justice Network website.