When I first started working in the criminal justice voluntary sector around 15 years ago, I did so with the best intentions. From what I’d learned at university and through voluntary work, I thought we needed a bit less criminal justice – for example fewer people in prison. I thought society needed to reduce the harm that criminal justice caused. Finding alternatives to custody seemed important, as did making the police more accountable, and reducing crime. I didn’t question the function or necessity of a penal system – I just wanted it to be a bit smaller and a bit nicer to people.
As time went on I learned about the way that criminal justice functions – to manage the behaviour and law breaking of those living in poverty, the marginalised, BME people, people with low educational attainment and people with experiences of trauma, violence and neglect. It reinforces and maintains existing structural arrangements and injustices – for those who are harmed by law breaking, and for those who are caught breaking the law. Not only that, but when taking a ‘social harm’ approach, it becomes clear that those things deemed criminal, and dealt with by criminal justice agencies are often not the most harmful things that happen in society.
Jeffrey Reiman in his book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (2007) describes criminal justice as offering a ‘carnival mirror’ image of reality:
First we are led to believe that the criminal justice system is protecting us against the gravest threats to our well-being when, in fact, the system is protecting us against only some threats and not necessarily the gravest ones…The second deception is … if people believe the carnival mirror is a true mirror… they come to believe that whatever is the target of the criminal justice system must be the greatest threat to their well-being.
In light of a wider understanding of the gravest threats to well-being and safety, I began to question whether making the criminal justice a ‘bit nicer’ and a ‘bit smaller’ was enough.
Launched back in the summer of 2013, the Justice Matters initiative at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies represented an important evolution in our work. For over a decade we had been examining the shortcomings and limitations of using criminal justice approaches to social justice problems. Based on evidence and research, we came to the conclusion that criminal justice was far too costly and too damaging. While some of our organisational efforts are quite rightly focused on improving people’s experiences in the here and now, we acknowledged that these efforts are only part of the solution. If the goal is to tackle the root causes of complex social problems, criminal justice is unlikely to provide the answers.
Justice Matters is explicitly not an attempt to reform or fix criminal justice. Three areas of focus have been proposed: downsize, build and transform. The idea was to look beyond criminal justice and to build partnerships and collaborations to identify visionary objectives and concrete solutions. As the project developed, we also began to focus on the experiences of young black men, and on the experiences of women.
Downsizing criminal justice
In the ‘downsize’ phase of the project we invited people to tell us what bit of criminal justice they believed would do away with and the Centre received a number of suggestions and ideas, illustrated below.
I would build...
We then invited people to write for us and explain what they would build instead (illustrated in the image below).
These contributions have helped to provide a broad base of options to build on – but they need to be developed further. Below I make some tentative suggestions on how it might be possible to get closer to the goal of ensuring a safer society and thus make criminal justice irrelevant, unnecessary and obsolete.
I would build...criminal justice scepticism
There are a number of people and organisations who share a healthy scepticism about the use of criminal justice as a mechanism for dealing with social problems. The critical mass at the moment is largely amongst those who already have a certain amount of ‘expert’ knowledge about the system – people affected by law breaking, those who have been punished, practitioners, researchers, activists, policy makers and parliamentarians. They are familiar with the structural abandonment of people who have been harmed and traumatised.
It is important to keep drawing out and sharing a solid critique of criminal justice - of making the case in accessible and novel ways on why the system doesn’t work – and why fixing it is limited in its ambition. This is largely a research and communications exercise – and crucial to this, I believe, is injecting criminal justice scepticism into social justice policy and activism.
Criminal justice experts have an important role to play in finding ways to downsize the system and reduce the numbers of people coming into it (i.e. turning off the tap). Criminal justice sceptics (myself included) are usually very good at identifying what isn’t working. But it is important to complement criminal justice reform with the expansion of (non-criminal justice) interventions and approaches that promote wellbeing, health, stability, security and safety in people’s lives.
I would build...social justice alternatives
Dismantling criminal justice is key to building a safer society. We need to reject the organised abandonment currently seen in our social welfare and criminal justice institutions.
Non-criminal justice alternatives do exist. Criminal justice experts, while able to begin to push things in the right direction usually start with the area they know best – criminal justice reform. However, if we are serious in removing the institutions of punishment and control from our criminal justice and social welfare systems, then it is important to reach out to social policy and social justice experts and activists.
Violence against women is a good example of how to do this. Criminal justice has an ideological function – it has been used in a symbolic way to show that an endemic problem is being taken ‘seriously’. But in the case of violence against women, it can narrow focus to 'what can criminal justice agencies to better?' and divert attention from crucial matters related to tackling inequality and the causes of gendered violence. Criminal justice experts often have much to say on how to get the police and courts to respond better to women who have experienced violence. These experts might also have something to say on better to control and ‘treat’ men who commit such violence. But as an attendee at one of our Justice Matters for Women events last year said ‘you can’t use a patriarchal institution to solve a problem of patriarchy’. There is knowledge about how best to eliminate violence against women – and this knowledge is found in the areas of public health, anti-violence, feminism, epidemiology, economics and so on. In building a blueprint for change it will be these experts who should be at the forefront of the conversation.
I would build...a blueprint for long-term change
As the Justice Matters work continues into year three, it is time to engage a wider range of stakeholders in discussions about long term change. The arguments for the dismantling of criminal justice needs to be more powerfully communicated. The long term change I want to see is about creating safe, just and sustainable communities. It’s a vision of social justice that, if achieved, rejects and bypasses criminal justice interventions.
In the year ahead, I hope that we can focus on building what might be ambitiously titled a ‘blueprint’ for long term change. Importantly this would need to be visionary, accessible, cross disciplinary and cross sector.
A vision and guiding principles: A blueprint needs some guiding principles, for example resisting and stemming system growth, maximum support for people who have been traumatised and harmed; minimal resort to the use of punishment, surveillance and control.
Social arrangements: What political, social and economics arrangements are required to ensure maximum levels of wellbeing, health, safety. What services and institutions are required to support this? How do we build the capacity of individuals and communities to address problems when they arise? How do we ensure that when people are harmed, there are adequate resources and processes to minimise and repair damage?
Criminal justice: How can people be directed out of the system as it currently exists and how do we simultaneously turn off the tap? How do we stop people coming into the criminal system as it currently exists? Examples might include;
- decriminalisation (drugs, immigration/asylum related, joint enterprise, children, etc)
- resisting new or expanding use of criminal justice and punitive sanctions
- limit the places available in criminal justice institutions
- diversion to comprehensive support mechanisms
- de-centering punishment and conditionality from wider social institutions; Improve well-being and equality so that problematic behaviours do not arise.
Criminal justice experts and criminal justice sceptics have some of the answers on the questions about turning off the tap and funnelling people out. Developing a vision and identifying social arrangements requires wider input.
Penal abolition could be a natural consequence or a by-product of a radically different society – a society that holds dear the goals of equality and wellbeing and health and safety for everyone. Criminal justice sceptics and abolitionists have something important to say in how to build such a society and offer caution and counsel on the harms of punitive power.
The change that needs to happen is not largely within criminal justice policy, it is within social and economic policy - and also at a community level. This strengthens the case for building connections between criminal justice and social justice activism, and policy to transform society in which punishment and control is no longer necessary or relied upon to resolve harm. Social justice activists and experts are natural allies in criminal justice scepticism and abolition.
Rebecca Roberts is Senior Policy Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies