An opportunity for progress, or the threat of an authoritarian turn?

Richard Garside
Friday, 19 June 2020

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis we have been tracking its impact on the criminal justice system.

Does the coronavirus, and the extraordinary measures currently being taken by governments around the world, offer an opportunity for a progressive rethink of many of our assumptions about criminal justice?

Or are we on the cusp of an authoritarian turn: a more aggressive policing of our public spaces; a more punitive approach to those deemed disruptive or out of place; longer prison sentences in ever more austere and oppressive prison conditions?

These and other questions were explored in a webinar series we have been holding in partnership with The Open University. Yesterday we held the third and final webinar.

You can watch the videos of all three webinars here.

In the first webinar on 4 June, our panellists discussed some of the immediate issues facing the criminal justice system, including our courts, prisons, probation service and youth justice service. The sense of a system under strain was palpable in much of what our speakers said; uncertainty and unpredictability a common theme.

The second webinar, on 11 June, considered some of the wider political ramifications, including whether it might open up new possibilities for policies more grounded in reason and evidence than has been the case over recent years. Reasons to be optimistic there may well be. But there are also grounds for vigilance and, indeed, pessimism.

The third webinar, held yesterday, explored the opportunities for positive change that might emerge from the current crisis, including in relation to domestic violence, racial injustice, policing, and children and young people. The innovations being forced through the system as a result of social distancing offer the potential to open up justice in new and positive ways.

But as some of our speakers pointed out, the mobilisations following the death of George Floyd are a product of the deep injustices felt and experienced by many black and brown people; injustices that will not easily be resolved.