road outside a prison

Campaigning for justice reform in 2018

16 March 2018

Prisons are in crisis, but with policy makers preoccupied by Brexit and the constant game of musical chairs at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), how does the social sector go about campaigning for meaningful criminal justice reform in 2018? We all put great store in the notion of inside track campaigning, but does continuing political uncertainty mean that we should pay more attention to winning the hearts and minds of the public to shape future policy?   

Over the last few months I have been speaking to leading criminal justice campaigners about how they are tackling the task at hand, revisiting and building upon the findings of last year’s Beyond Bars report. Some feel that influencing the public, placing crime in a wider context of social disadvantage, is now more important than ever.

In January we welcomed yet another Justice Secretary, David Gauke, to MOJ. His predecessor David Lidington was in post for only 211 days, the equivalent of just 1.7 days for each prison in England and Wales. With the fifth change in political leadership in just two years, the campaigning efforts of charities trying to reform and influence the justice system are set back yet again as their relationships in government change, communications slow down, and their resources are wasted.

‘It is so important that funders shine a light on dark corners, funding contentious work and strengthening the hand of change makers.’

Max Rutherford, Criminal Justice Programme Manager, Barrow Cadbury Trust

It is tricky for charities to find funding to do campaigning work. Funders might simply see it as too impossible a task to achieve. But large charities delivering public contracts have also been known to dial down the volume on their own campaigning and advocacy for fear of compromising the winning of contracts.

‘Working to influence government policy on criminal justice issues is more important than ever, but the context is an incredibly challenging one. The capacity for campaigning across the criminal justice sector is quite limited compared to many other social issues.’

Katharine Sacks-Jones, Director, Agenda: the alliance for women and girls

Where criminal justice charities are campaigning, they have traditionally focused on inside track influencing, relying on charities’ ability to tread the corridors of Whitehall to influence those in positions of power. But the inside track isn’t the only option and charities are thinking much more about their other options.

Is the outside track a viable option?

Since decision makers are influenced by public attitudes, outside track campaigns try to change policy by influencing the public’s views. There is a tendency for criminal justice charities to see this as too mammoth a task, grounded in the belief that the public are too punitive and deaf to the arguments for penal reform. Perhaps they are right; it was only in 2015 that the percentage of people in the UK who would like to see the death penalty brought back dropped below 50%.

Though it is surely true that you will have a tough time raising funds and running a marathon for prisoners, the tabloid press does not represent the sum total of public opinion—and perhaps now is the time for us, as a sector, to promote greater advocacy and community activism in order to advance the cause of criminal justice reform.[1]

So, exactly how punitive are the British people, and is there any real potential to shift policy in this area by influencing them? When the Prison Reform Trust conducted research on public attitudes to crime after the 2011 riots, the image of a highly punitive public didn’t entirely stand up to scrutiny, with less than two-thirds (65%) considering that a prison sentence would be effective in preventing crime and disorder.[2] Of course, the public may still want to see people sent to prison for punishment, even if they think it won’t work at reducing crime. The British Social Attitudes 34th edition recently found that the country remains tough on the threats of crime after recent terror attacks. During a time of suspected terrorist attack, half of the public (53%) support the government being able to detain people indefinitely without putting them on trial, whilst the current legal limit is 14 days.

On such a polarising and thorny issue as crime, is it really the best use of charities resources to engage in outside track campaigning? Some of the charities I spoke to felt that now is the time to try because there is clearly some dissonance between people’s view of crime and the way that the criminal justice system operates. Another attitudinal survey conducted by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in 2016 found that only 1% of people found shoplifting to be a more serious offence than police manipulation of evidence, though the former is far more likely to face prosecution than the latter. Campaigning organisations could latch onto these cracks to open and reframe the debate to prevent burrowing into an echo chamber of charities talking to one another.

Not losing sight of the bigger picture: the social determinants of criminal justice

‘The criminal justice campaigning sector is itself imprisoned by focusing on prison.’

Will McMahon, Deputy Director, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

‘The policy influencing landscape focuses far too much on prison and not the alternatives.’

John Drew, Former director of the Youth Justice Board and chair of the Criminal Justice Alliance

As well as a need for more outside track campaigning there is also the need for more systems change thinking: for example, zooming out from prisons to look at the root causes of social disadvantage that may lead to criminalisation, or at the social determinants of crime. Systems thinking also looks at the structures, institutions and relationships that make up the criminal justice system and any points of leverage to effect change. Some feel that the prison reform agenda, without being placed in a wider picture of decarceration, dodges the real mission of our sector because, ‘our mission is not ultimately to make prisons such nice places that we incentivise the courts to send more people there.’

‘People in prison are in many ways the easiest to round up, being of a certain class, race, living in heavily policed communities, or having experienced trauma. Trying to improve the prison system is, in ways, colluding with it and giving it rationale to exist.’

Will McMahon, Deputy Director, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

‘Some campaigners have put a lot of eggs in the basket of alternatives to custody. In focusing heavily on the hard end we quickly lose sight of why people end up there. It is in the Victorian origins of philanthropy to see someone caught up in a problem and try to rescue them. We mustn’t get distracted from tackling root causes.’

Julian Corner, Chief Executive, Lankelly Chase

Intersectional campaigning is more important than ever

In some ways the criminal justice system is the sharp end of social failure where people’s voices are least powerful. Life experiences aren’t siloed into ‘sub-sectors’ as defined by the charity sector: substance abuse, homelessness, lack of education and employment, domestic and sexual violence are all some of the drivers for men and women’s involvement in crime. In the same way that service provision often needs to holistic and person centred, campaigning should try to be intersectional too.

‘For some campaigning is about making a noise from the outside. There is a role for charities to play in brokering relationships with individual activists in the community, and people on the receiving end of services, to make sure their voices are heard, and their views are taken into account, by those with the authority to change both policy and practice.’

Juliet Lyon, former director of the Prison Reform Trust and chair
of the independent advisory panel on deaths in custody

Many of those in the criminal justice system, (particularly women), have been ‘done to’ all their lives and need charities to step up by ‘doing with’ them to create meaningful change, willing to accept that organisations don’t, despite their power and influence, necessarily know what is best for people. Charities campaigning in the criminal justice system could do more to elevate the voices of those with lived experience and diversity of opinion to the forefront of their campaigns. In outside track campaigns they could potentially change public perceptions of people who commit crimes.

There is no doubt that influencing policy makers remains a vital route to impact, but what I’m hearing from the sector is that it isn’t—and shouldn’t be—the only approach. Mobilising the public through ‘outside track’ campaigns, systems thinking and addressing the intersections of criminal justice with a wider picture of social issues—framing criminalisation as an outcome of other social failures as much as it is a ‘need’—are all some of the ways that criminal justice campaigning could evolve in 2018.

Join the conversation on Twitter via @NPCthinks and @GraceWyld 

Many thanks to the following for contributing their time and knowledge to our research:

  • Anita Dockley, Howard League for Penal Reform
  • Christopher Stacey, Unlock
  • John Drew, Former director of the Youth Justice Board and chair of the Criminal Justice Alliance
  • Joy Doal, Anawim
  • Julian Corner, Lankelly Chase
  • Juliet Lyon, Chair of the independent advisory panel on deaths in custody
  • Kate Paradine, Women in Prison
  • Katherine Sacks-Jones, Agenda
  • Max Rutherford, Barrow Cadbury Trust
  • Penelope Gibbs, Transform Justice
  • Richard Garside and Will McMahon, The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies


[1] Transform Justice’s ‘Reframing Justice: a handy guide’ begins by asking us, as a sector, to avoid triggering beliefs such as ‘crime is an individual, rational choice’ and instead to talk about the societal causes of crime and alternatives to prison. Penelope Gibbs, its director, encourages storytelling to communicate the criminal justice system, using the image of ‘crime current,’ which can be so powerful it is hard to break out of.

[2] The poll offered a range of measures to prevent crime and disorder, and most people (84%) considered that better supervision of young people by parents would be effective, followed by ‘better mental health care’ (80%). Less than two-thirds (65%) considered that a prison sentence would be effective in preventing crime and disorder.