I would downsize criminal justice by...

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 23 October 2013

In July this year we launched Justice Matters to stimulate fresh thinking on downsizing the United Kingdom's criminal justice systems and to encourage the development of an alternative set of policies and practices that collectively are a proportionate response to the harms that people face.

The starting point of Justice Matters is simple: the criminal justice system is far too big; far too costly; far too intrusive. Far from being a means of delivering social justice, it is the cause of much social injustice. The large footprint in society occupied by the combined criminal justice institutions is profoundly socially harmful.

Solid evidence and rigorous assessment are important priorities for Justice Matters. We also want to make sure that ideas are presented in a clear and accessible manner. We are particularly keen to explore how infographics and other innovative communications can be used to convey some of the more complex or significant facts and ideas.

Here are some examples of innovative infographics we have come across. You can go to the original source by clicking on the picture.

We would be really interested to get your thoughts on these examples and your suggestions on infographics you have come across and that you think work really well.

Infographics: What do you think?

We like this snappy infographic by Megan McLain for its simplicity and immediacy.

By contrasting the share of the United States general population with its share of the global prison population it offers an original take on the per capita prison population question.


This detailed infographic by Jason Killinger conveys a lot of complex information.

By comparing the social and economic costs of education and incarceration it explores the political choices that are being made in an accessible, visually engaging way.


This poster by the Everyday Abolition collective uses humour to highlight the potentially dry and arcane problem of criminalisation in a funny and engaging way.


Why downsize?

Evidence that the criminal justice systems of the United Kingdom are far too big, far too costly, and far too intrusive is all around us. Last Friday the prison population in England and Wales nudged up towards the 85,000 mark. This is a figure that Ken Clarke, the former Justice Secretary, described as 'quite an astonishing number' in his speech to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in June 2010.

Across the United Kingdom some 95,000 people are currently in prison.

Our research on the criminal justice system in England and Wales shows how it has grown across the board.

  • Our report Police Expenditure 1999-2009 found that spending on the police in England and Wales rose by a half in real terms over the ten years to 2009. Police numbers grew dramatically, while police caseloads stayed largely unchanged.
  • Spending on the prison and probation services grew by a third in real terms in the five years to 2009. More and more prisoners and probationers were drawn into the system as a result.
  • The picture in relation to courts expenditure was complicated. Expenditure on magistrates' courts grew by a third in real terms between 2005 and 2009, while staffing and caseloads shrank. Crown Court expenditure grew by ten percent in real terms between 2005 and 2008. Caseloads also grew.

More recently we have started to track the changing nature of the United Kingdom criminal justice systems as part of our annual UK Justice Policy Review reports.

Some argue that such dramatic growth has been necessary to make us all safer. This is far from the case.

In March 2012 a National Audit Office report, Comparing International Criminal Justice Systems, found ‘no consistent correlations’ between official crime rates and the numbers in prison across a range of countries. Prison, it noted ‘is very expensive’ and it questioned ‘aspects of its cost-effectiveness’.

A recent international review found no evidence that rates of imprisonment, police numbers or policing strategies explained falls in the official crime rate. The exception was the United States. There the resort to extraordinary levels of imprisonment and aggressive policing strategies that disproportionately target black people and the most disadvantaged had a possible and partial effect on recorded levels of law breaking. The United States accounts for around four percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners. Such policies have been profoundly harmful and economically wasteful.

Rebuilding alternatives

During the course of the last generation the United Kingdom has become over reliant on policing, prosecution and punishment. We established Justice Matters because we believe that there are better ways to tackle the complex problems our society faces. It is possible to downsize the criminal justice system at the same time as reducing social harm and delivering greater safety. 

The Centre’s 2012 report, Reducing the numbers in custody,highlighted evidence that 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.

Our comprehensive review of gun and knife crime strategies for the Children’s Commissioner for England cast doubt on the impact 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.

Our over reliance on criminal justice is crowding out such policy and practice innovation. Justice Matters is examining realistic alternatives to criminal justice and working with others to develop an evidenced agenda to transform policy and practice.

Got something to say on Justice Matters?

In the coming months we plan to publish short contributions on our website on downsizing criminal justice and rebuilding policy and practice alternatives to it.

  • Contributions should be short: no more than 500 words.
  • They should be written in everyday, accessible English. We are really not looking for academic treatises.
  • They do not need to be heavily referenced, but they do need to be well thought through and clearly argued.
  • We are looking for pieces that consider how criminal justice might be downsized and what alternatives to criminal justice practice might look like.
  • We are not looking for pieces on alternatives within the criminal justice system (e.g. community sentences or restorative justice rather than prison, more criminal justice-based drug treatment or education, and so on).

If you think that you have something to say, we would love to hear from you.

For more on Justice Matters visit the project page.

You can email the Justice Matters team at