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To truly beat crime, we need to break the cycle of crisis and crime

How far is it possible to carry out piecemeal reform of a system when we are not clear on the underlying principles governing such reforms? The past few weeks have seen several policy announcements land in relation to criminal justice. The Lord Chancellor’s plans to rebuild criminal justice, the publication of the Government’s Beating Crime Plan, and Government plans to address the drivers of crime – all form part of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and Conservative party manifesto commitment to make the country safer. Interspersed with evidence based proposals, we also have the polar opposite which give rise to concern and lead us further from the prospect of really breaking the cycle that keeps many people trapped in the system.

The Government commitment to improve the criminal justice system, and in particular the £31million investment into expanding Project ADDER is welcome. We were also glad to see the Beating Crime Plan’s recognition that certain experiences, such as witnessing domestic abuse or the care system, can lead to involvement in the criminal justice system which can be challenged through early intervention. Greater investment into community sentence treatment requirements and schemes to reduce the number of people leaving prison homeless are also positive steps to addressing the drivers of crime and reduce reoffending. Nevertheless, there are several areas of the Beating Crime Plan that do give rise to serious concerns.

Our concerns

The Plan commits to making it easier for the police to use stop and search powers by permanently relaxing voluntary conditions on Section 60 stop and search. Young adults, in particular young adult men from racially minoritised groups, are more likely than any other group to be stopped and searched. This leads to an erosion of trust and the undermining of positive relationships between the police and communities.

The Plan also sets out a vision for more targeted policing, focusing on ‘hotspots’ of crime. Young adults that we spoke to for The Knot report reflect on ‘the ripple effect’ of arrests on their community, with each wrongful arrest confirming the communities’ experiences of being “targeted”, “humiliated” and “victimised” by law enforcement.

“Hotspots are usually in more deprived areas. They’re hotspots because there’s a lack of resources, a lack of support. Instead focus on why these areas are hotspots.” – New Generation Campaigner

There are many references to the issue of ‘persistent offenders’ but little interrogation of why this cohort do engage in repeat, low-level crime. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the revolving door of crisis and crime, where multiple disadvantage and inadequate rehabilitative measures and services hinder people from exiting the criminal justice system.

Underpinning all of this are concerns with rapidly progressing pieces of forthcoming legislation, such as the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. These Bills have far-reaching consequences for the criminal justice system and people within it, and we are deeply concerned that the voluntary sector has not had ample time nor opportunity for proper consultation on forthcoming legislation.

Tough on crime, or tough on the causes of crime?

For the past five years, Revolving Doors has closely examined the drivers of crime, through engaging with people with lived experience of the criminal justice system, robust research, and consistent policy analysis.

In 2017, research and polling undertaken by Revolving Doors showed half of people going to prison were on short sentences, most for non-violent offences and petty crimes such as theft. 80% of the public think that theft of daily essentials such as food, sanitary products and nappies does not warrant a prison sentence. This was true for voters across all the major parties. 74% of the public think people with alcohol or substance misuse issues belong in treatment programmes instead of prison.

People who commit low-level crimes due to issues such as poverty, poor mental health, and substance and alcohol misuse belong to the ‘revolving door’ cohort who remain in a cycle of crisis and crime unless their multiple needs are adequately addressed. For this cohort, ‘tough sentences’, sped-up courts processes and 18,000 more prison places will do little to ‘beat crime’. Rather, it will further compound this cycle of crisis, offending, and reoffending, and ultimately lead to unfair outcomes for people experiencing multiple disadvantage.

“There are contributing factors as to why people offend – lack of education, living in a poorer area. Early interventions could reduce the risk but it’s how they’re put in place and the approach they take with that.” – New Generation Campaigner

The ‘Knot’ of disadvantage

Though we welcome the focus on victims of crime in the Beating Crime Plan, it is important to note that victims and those perceived as ‘offenders’ are not always mutually exclusive. Through our conversations with people with lived experience of the revolving door of crisis and crime, we have heard of multiple experiences of neglect, abuse, trauma and household dysfunction, and multiple and often traumatic losses and bereavements primarily driven by mental ill-health and drug overdoses. We have also heard about experiences of persistent community violence – of friends, family members and neighbours being assaulted, murdered, and subjected to racial discrimination. All these challenging experiences happen in the context of profound poverty, of having no option but to live in unsafe or unsuitable accommodation, being unable to afford enough food to feed the family, high levels of school exclusion, and persistent and intergenerational unemployment.

For these people, their experiences of policing and the criminal justice system are tied in a knot with their experiences of trauma, poverty, and structural inequalities. The ‘tough on crime’ stance – though it often takes centre-stage in party manifestos – is nothing new. Contrary to popular belief, prison sentences have been getting longer, and reoffending rates within a year of release are high—for those serving short sentences of less than 12 months the rates are even higher. Our research shows that short prison sentences are proven to be less effective at reducing reoffending than community sentences. This punitive stance has been taken by many Governments before; it simply isn’t working.

That is why we are calling for a reset of the criminal justice system.

As we focus on recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, we believe now is the opportunity to genuinely level up by recognising and tackling the ‘knot’ of factors that drive the cycle of crisis and crime and move away from punitive measures that have largely been proven to fail. At Revolving Doors, our mission is to understand what such a system would look like, by building capacity and knowledge amongst the statutory and voluntary sector through consulting with people with lived experience of the criminal justice system and support agencies at every stage in the system to create services that untangle the ‘knot’.

“If you’re doing community service, you should do something that’s accredited and that you get a skill out of. So it’s rehabilitative as well as punitive.” – New Generation Campaigner

The Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland spoke about rebuilding the criminal justice system in a recent speech made at the Centre for Social Justice. We believe that a reset of the criminal justice system must be underpinned by:

  •  An understanding of how multiple disadvantage creates a ‘knot’ that drives the revolving door of crisis and crime, leading to consistent involvement in the criminal justice system
  • An understanding of how the current system design either helps or hinders people to avoid or exit the criminal justice system, by consulting with people with lived experience of police contact, courts and tribunals, ‘through the gate’ support when leaving prison, probation services, and community sentences.
  • True and sustained emphasis of multi-agency working, with government departments such as the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Governments working together to tackle drivers of crime such as poor mental health, homelessness, poverty, and substance misuse – taking a preventative rather than punitive approach. Preventative approaches should apply to all people caught in the revolving door of crisis and crime, not just first-time entrants. Project ADDER, the Community Sentence Treatment Requirements programme and the RECONNECT: Care after Custody Service are positive approaches which should be rolled out across the country.
  • Investing in a sustainable whole-systems approach to preventing crime, by ensuring sufficient support to prevent crime through holistic measures, co-produced with the community, and investing in diversionary measures so that entry into the criminal justice system becomes a last resort rather than the first point of call. Our recently published evidence review of diversionary services shows that delivering tailored interventions that meet the health and human needs of young adults can turn young people’s lives around, reduce crime and improve public safety.
  • The government should introduce a presumption against the use of short custodial sentences of less than six months. This should coincide with a move towards community sentences and rehabilitation to truly tackle reoffending and persistent, low-level crime.
  • Prisons to be used as a last resort for the most serious and violent offences. Prisons should be a place of rehabilitation and support for those serving sentences, to ensure that when people do leave prison they can exit the criminal justice system for good and have access to safe and secure housing, stable employment, and necessary treatment interventions. The punishment of prison is the deprivation of liberty – people in prison should not be further punished by poor living conditions, a lack of services, and an unsafe environment.

We will continue working alongside people with lived experience of the criminal justice system to propose viable, evidence-based and sustainable solutions that will truly beat crime, resulting in less victims and less people needlessly caught up in a never-ending cycle of crisis and crime. We want the impact of multiple disadvantage to be brought to the forefront of the beating crime agenda. To truly beat crime, we need to understand, and address, the causes of crime.