Time for bold action to downsize criminal justice

Richard Garside
Thursday, 19 November 2015

The awful events in Paris have sharpened the political conflict over cuts to policing in England and Wales.

During Prime Minister's questions yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn argued that the police play 'a vital role in community cohesion', a role that would be 'undermined if we cut the number of police officers by 5,000'.

The government is on the back foot on cuts to policing.

Mr Corbyn's intervention, and that by the shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, therefore makes for good politics, albeit one more in keeping with the New Labour playbook than Mr Corbyn's 'new politics'.

But whatever the motives, an unquestioning defence of police budgets makes for bad policy-making.

Buying into the argument that high police numbers are a cornerstone of a safe and secure society will make the kind of society Mr Corbyn would like to see harder to achieve.


The crisis in criminal justice

Debates about policing in England and Wales – which in crucial respects differ from those in Scotland and Northern Ireland – are a symptom of a wider malaise in criminal justice.

Symptoms of this malaise include:

  • Demoralised and overworked staff and institutions in crisis, including in our courts, prisons, probation and police forces.
  • Defendants without access to proper legal representation, and given a financial incentive to plead guilty, for fear of unfair court charges.
  • The police spending much of their time on ‘non-crime’ activities, while at the same time antagonising young people and black and minority ethnic people, among others, with crude and aggressive policing tactics.
  • Profound levels of harm in our prisons and a disproportionate number of individuals with traumatic personal histories of emotional and physical abuse being imprisoned.
  • Thousands of people caught in a repeating cycle of conviction and reconviction.

The cuts to Home Office and Ministry of Justice budgets under the coalition government – 20 and 30 percent respectively between 2010 and 2015 – played an important role in catalysing these problems. The further cuts to Home Office and Ministry of Justice budgets to 2020 will make many of these problems worse still.

Given this, the pressure to support criminal justice workers, victims of crime and the vulnerable, through a commitment to defending criminal justice budgets in government, is high.

It would also be a mistake.

Mission creep

The coalition cuts to Home Office and Ministry of Justice budgets, and the further cuts to come, are unfolding against the background of generous criminal justice spending under the last Labour government. Between 1999 and 2009, for instance, police budgets grew, in real terms, by 50 percent.

These generous budget settlements funded record police and prison numbers, and widened the net of criminalisation. Mission creep among the generously funded police meant that they – rather than social workers, health workers, housing professionals, educationalists – became the first responders to a range of social problems, such as at risk children, those in mental health crisis and problem drug users.

The dilemma this has created was captured well by Polly Toynbee earlier this week. Writing in The Guardian, she highlighted the pressures faced by the police following cuts to social and health budgets.

'The question home secretary Theresa May has to answer,' she wrote, 'is this: what should the police stop doing? they might stop chasing might be suicides, or no longer guard psychotics the hospital won't restrain until psychiatrists section them.'

This is a good question and one that Mr Corbyn and his colleagues – as well as the Conservative government – should be considering as a matter of urgency.

Time for a rethink

The coalition government squandered the opportunity to rebalance public policy away from over-criminalisation. In place of serious thought about the implications of shrinking criminal justice budgets, it pursued a series of pointless reorganisations (Police and Crime Commissioners, for instance) and ill-thought-out privatisations (such as probation).

The opportunity remains to develop a bold, visionary and coherent vision for how the many social problems British society faces can be addressed. This should include a rethink:

  • of the role and purpose, the size and scale, of criminal justice;
  • of the appropriate configuration of public services, to address those social problems all too often treated as crime problems.

What might such a rethink look like? Here are five ideas.

1. Reorganise and downsize the police

The interminable debate over the optimum number of police forces, or whether falling police numbers means rising crime (it doesn’t), is a distraction and a substitute for serious thought about what the police are for and how they should be organised.

In the 1980s, Home Office researchers concluded that a patrolling police officer would pass within 100 yards of a burglary in progress once every eight years. Yet we remain wedded to the notion of routine police patrols, in a way we would not expect paramedics to wander the streets just in case someone had a heart attack.

College of Policing research has found that only 16 percent of calls to the police relate to crime. The Care Quality Commission found that the police are all-too-often the first responders for those in mental health crisis.

Much of the work currently being done by the police should be done by other public services better placed to do the work – health, education, social services for instance – or not done at all (routine police presence in schools is a good example).

So the police need to be downsized; their role much more tightly defined. This is something senior police officers themselves have started publicly to discuss.

Other agencies, better placed to deliver these services, should be properly resourced to do so.

2. Initiate a major programme of decarceration

Prisons do not keep the British public safe. It is also fantasy to think that prisons can be places of reform and rehabilitation. Prisons warehouse mostly poor and marginalised people; those with often profound and complex mental health and addiction problems, and with heart-breaking personal stories of trauma and abuse.

The growth in prison numbers from the mid 1990s to 2010 was a slow one: around ten more prisoners each and every day, for fifteen or so years. What is needed is an incremental, and equivalent, managed reduction.

Locking up ten fewer prisoners each day over the next five years would reduce the prison population by some 18,250.

To gain public support for such an approach, the money saved could be reinvested in socially useful programmes. Grim Victorian-era prisons, for instance, could be closed and demolished, with affordable social housing built in its place.

The current government's plans to replace old prisons with new ones, selilng off the land for luxury flat development, is a tragic, missed opportunity to share the decarceration dividend.

3. Pursue a progressive localism agenda

Current approaches to localism are often better at taking power away from local people rather than bringing it closer to them. Police and Crime Commissioners, while directly elected, operate without any effective formal accountability mechanisms. The new Probation community rehabilitation companies are private interests with no public oversight.

The opportunity is there to develop a popular localism agenda in relation to justice delivery: probation work embedded within local authority social service departments for instance; bringing police forces under the oversight of local authorities and community panels that represent local people; getting local authorities to take the lead in fostering better linkages between local services and a much-reduced prison system.

4. A smaller system with greater protections

The erosion of legal aid provision and other procedural protections for suspects and defendants is a reflection of budget pressures and demands to speed up the criminal justice process. It is easier to cut legal aid payments, for instance, than it is to close prisons, particularly when the government is committed to tough on crime gesture politics.

One of the benefits of a downsized and leaner criminal justice system will be the scope it offers to invest in those areas that really matter, such as properly funded legal aid.

5. Connecting up with other services

Staff working in the various criminal justice agencies are often responding to real problems. Addressing the educational and health problems of criminalised populations; mental health crisis response by the police; dealing with neighbour disputes and local nuisance problems are all concrete challenges in need of serious and meaningful responses.

They are also predominantly social problems that are all too often treated as if they were crime problems. If a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, then criminal justice agencies tend to see every problem as a crime problem.

The fundamental challenge is to reshape commonsense expectations, institutional configurations and everyday practice, so that the many real social challenges, which currently receive an inadequate and inappropriate criminal justice response, are properly resolved by those agencies best placed to deal with them.

The bigger picture: the economics of victimisation and harm

For criminal justice downsizing to be an achievable reality, the causes of criminal justice caseloads – poverty and inequality; unequal access to power; social antagonisms; drug misuse and mental health problems; racism, misogyny and discrimination – need to be addressed.

The main influences on levels of harm and victimisation are social arrangements, not the operations of the criminal justice system and its individual agencies.

Dysfunctional social arrangements are also a key driver of bloated criminal justice systems. Countries with high levels of poverty and inequality, and inadequate social safety nets, tend to have high prison populations. Those with lower levels of poverty and inequality, and stronger social safety nets, tend to have lower prison populations.

An economic programme and social policy aimed at tackling these problems will deliver a range of social benefits. It will also result in falling demands on criminal justice agencies.

They will face fewer demands to deal, after the event, with problems that could better be resolved, and prevented, through coherent social provision and progressive economic policies.