Towards a better way

Andrew Coyle
Monday, 21 March 2022

In a recent article on this website Richard Garside issued a plea about the current state of criminal justice: “How do we escape the monotony of repeated policy failure?”

I would like to reassure Richard that there is a way to do this, provided we are prepared to move away from 19th and 20th century solutions to what is a 21st century problem. 

Traditionally, attempts at penal reform have focussed on how to improve and update current arrangements and systems. This is a worthy endeavour and is to be encouraged; however, such an approach can never result in fundamental change. Remember the much-quoted dictum of the English Prison Commissioner Alexander Paterson:

It is impossible to train men for freedom in a condition of captivity.

This assertion has been persistently borne out over the years, yet a century after it was issued politicians and policy makers still find difficulty in accepting its truth. This failing can also be applied across the wider criminal justice system, as its boundaries have continually widened, taking it into areas where it should have no locus.

The College of Policing has reported that non-crime related incidents account for 83 per cent of all calls to police Command and Control Centres. In the same vein, one Chief Constable has reported that his officers spend just 25 per cent of their time investigating crime while almost half of their work relates to “things other agencies are increasingly moving away from because of their own budget cuts”, many of these to do with mental health issues.

We all want to be safe, to feel safe and to have a greater sense of social inclusion. As one American commentator has noted, “Part of the problem is that for decades now communities have been told that the only resource they can have to address their community problems is more policing and more incarceration”. Certainly, in responding to these challenges the criminal justice system has a role to play, but it can never be more than a limited one.

Over recent years the intellectual case for a new approach based on community safety and security has been constructed gradually. Initially spurred on by urban geographers and other social scientists it has been picked up at a practical level in a variety of disparate settings and is generally described as Justice Reinvestment. Very broadly, this has involved assessing the total resources, financial and other, that are expended on the criminal justice system; evaluating what benefit members of the public and taxpayers get from this expenditure; and considering whether there might be other ways of distributing these considerable resources at local levels to provide a better return on this substantial public investment.

The aim of the early founders of what is now the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies was “to promote the notion, backed by scientific research, that there were better ways of dealing with offenders than prison and to translate this notion into action”. As the Centre begins to plan for its centenary year, it might rise to the modern version of that challenge which its founders set, one which will lead us out of the monotony of repeated failure.

Andrew Coyle is a former Chair of Trustees of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (then known as the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Delinquency).

The issues raised in this article are dealt with more comprehensively in his latest book, Prisons of the World, published by Bristol University Press.