(RE)think piece

Enough ‘patching’, we need a radical Rethink & Reset of the criminal justice system

Enough ‘patching’, we need a radical Rethink & Reset of the criminal justice system

Pavan Dhaliwal

Pavan is the Chief Executive at Revolving Doors. In her years of experience advocating for reform to the criminal justice system, she has seen countless examples of piecemeal measures offering only limited solutions to end the cycle of crisis and crime. In this piece, she details her vision for a rethink of the system from first principles and takes a long term view which builds on the same spirit that gave birth to our welfare state, putting the voice of those with lived experience front and centre.

Eighty years ago this month, the economist William Beveridge presented a report to parliament with the unassuming title ‘Social Insurance and Allied Service’ which became known as the Beveridge Report. It came to be a blueprint for an unprecedented, far-reaching programme of social reform, ultimately leading to the creation of the modern welfare state. Beveridge identified five giants that blocked the road to progress. He named them Want, Ignorance, Squalor, Disease and Idleness, namely unemployment, education, housing, health and poverty.

The implementation of this radical set of policies began at a time when the country was recovering from the ravages of the Second World War and the related human and economic costs. It could be argued that it was a radical process of post-traumatic growth.

Beveridge’s guiding principle, that ‘a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not patching’ is as true now as it was in 1942, eight decades ago. Since then, universal health care was introduced via the National Health Service, social security saw benefit payments and housing provided to the financially worst off, and state-funded schools ensured access to a minimum standard of education for all – regardless or whether or not you could pay for it.

Even setting aside the significant impact of the pandemic, the past decade or so has seen deepening inequalities across our society, growing destitution, grinding in-work poverty, stalling life expectancy, entrenched barriers related to race and alarming trends in mental health and problematic substance use. This brings us to the present day, where we are now facing a cost-of-living crisis, with the Bank of England predicting the longest recession since the 1930s.

We want to capture that same spirit of post-traumatic growth and apply a reforming lens to our area of work – what is undeniably a broken criminal justice system.

That is why we are launching Rethink & Reset.

In 2022, we have the highest prison population in Western Europe. At least half the prison population report having mental health issues[1] which is three times higher than the general population[2]. We also know that a third of people in prison are suffering from a serious drug addiction[3] and are four times as likely to experience homelessness when compared to the general public.[4]

Put simply, it is becoming a crime to be poor, have mental health issues, or have problems with drugs or alcohol.

Rather than supporting people into mental health or drug and alcohol treatment, or alleviating poverty, our current system allows for those experiencing unmet needs to be repeatedly criminalized and get trapped in a revolving door of crisis and crime. Many of those suffering through these crises end up in repeat contact with the criminal justice system, serving short, ineffective prison sentences.

Last year almost half of those entering prison served less than 12 months,[5] and over half of those went on to reoffend within a year.[6] This is despite having more effective, cheaper alternatives – community sentences have significantly lower reoffending rates and cost a fraction of what it costs to imprison someone.[7]

Every one of our lived experience members undoubtedly has a story to tell. Many have been groomed and abused into low-level drug crimes, committed petty theft driven by problematic drug and alcohol use or poverty, or committed crimes simply because prison was the only place where they could have some form of support and a roof over their head. They will often have been turned away from mental health, housing or drug and alcohol services because their needs were deemed too ‘complex’ or ‘numerous’. Trying to access support for overlapping needs in a system where siloed working remains prevalent, means that people in the ‘revolving door’ of crisis and crime often fall through every crack and are left to reach crisis point. In many cases, this means crime.

We know from their first-hand insight that systems and services rarely work for our ‘revolving door’ group. Despite the low-level, non-violent nature of their crimes, they will serve sentences as short as a few weeks that will generally exacerbate rather than address the drivers of their behaviour. While being too short to receive adequate treatment and support within prison, short sentences are long enough to turn difficult life circumstances – poverty, mental health issues, trauma – into complete chaos and further entrench the circumstances that led to crime in the first place. For those who were ‘lucky enough’ to be diverted into support, this often comes after years of repeat contact with the criminal justice system.

Our criminal justice system shouldn’t be a game of chance. It should recognise how unmet health and social needs drive crime and offer support for these needs rather than effectively criminalise them.

This is why we need to hear from people who have been caught in the cycle of crisis and crime and those who have worked across prisons, policing, probation and the courts. People who have been decision-makers who may have designed policies differently if they weren’t at the behest of thinking in short political and funding cycles or those who now, with the benefit of hindsight, would have done things differently.

The ambition of Rethink & Reset is to rediscover the same sense of hope and determination that characterised the Beveridge report.

We need to move past our fractured politics and tap into the ingenuity of those who have worked in the system and those who have been trapped by it, to come up with long-term solutions for a judiciary that supports everyone towards better lives.

[1] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2021) Annual report 2020–21, London: HM Stationery Office

[2] McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016. Mental health and wellbeing in England: adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014M

[3] Home Office (2020) Review of drugs: phase one report, London: Home Office

[4] Ministry of Justice research on accommodation, homelessness, and reoffending of prisoners 2012) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/278806/homelessness-reoffending-prisoners.pdf  

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/offender-management-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2022 – make up 48% of all sentenced receptions in prison  in the past year(I.e. not including those on remand)

[6] MoJ reoffending stats October-September 2020 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/proven-reoffending-statistics-october-to-december-2020/proven-reoffending-statistics-october-to-september-2020  

[7] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1050046/costs-per-place-costs-per-prisoner-2020_-2021.pdf