white bars on window

How we can solve systemic failure in the criminal justice system

By Theo Clay 6 January 2021 4 minute read

In 2018, David Blagdon was released from prison. Years of appeals, judicial reviews and public petitions had failed to persuade the relevant bodies that he was not a threat to the public. However, aged 67, in a wheelchair and suffering from glaucoma and prostate cancer, David was finally moved to a care home in Somerset. He had been in prison for 34 years for setting fire to a pair of curtains.

How someone can spend over half their life in prison for an act of arson, which injured no-one and caused around £1,000 worth of damage, seems incomprehensible at first glance. David’s story is a litany of missed opportunities, bad decisions and a lack of appropriate support. When David started that fire, both his parents had recently died and he struggled with coping mechanisms and potential mental illness—when arrested, he himself described the fire as a ‘cry for help.’

Systemic failures

Mental health support, addiction services, and rehabilitative activities are shockingly underfunded and badly coordinated in our criminal justice system. If David had received the right support, at the right time, he certainly would not have been in prison for over three decades. David’s story is an example of systemic failure.

In 2019, we at NPC documented some of the challenges facing charities which try to tackle these issues and support people caught in the criminal justice system. These issues have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, with charities currently having no access to prisoners. Prisoners that are locked up for 23 hours a day. Those familiar with the criminal justice system have described how this is leaving people depressingly isolated and struggling alone without the support they need.

What is less reported, is that it may also lead to people staying in prison for longer, as individuals have fewer opportunities to make use of support services and to take up opportunities to develop skills which can help them move on with their lives and reintegrate into the community after release. This is grossly unfair.

Issues with funding

Independent funders have confessed to us that they want to support criminal justice related initiatives but they have been frustrated by the system preventing change from happening. With so many organisations operating within the system, a turbulent policy environment, and overcrowded prisons, they told us that they didn’t know where they could fund to have an impact.

Stories like David’s confirm beliefs that the criminal justice system is an indecipherable black hole. Change seems impossible and so it is rarely attempted. These beliefs are damaging, fatalistic, but also just incorrect—our research in 2019 highlighted a wide range of charities doing fantastic work to support people out of the criminal justice system. However, while these beliefs persist, changing the system will remain impossible.

Changing beliefs and the criminal justice system

At NPC we want to do our bit to try and tackle them, and to help create a vision for how to bring about positive change in the criminal justice system. In 2019, we described our work as ‘shining a light’ on the good work being done in the criminal justice system. Now we want to go further: by illuminating the whole system. We want to build a tool for funders, helping to guide them in how to make a difference with their giving, and for charitable organisations, enabling them to gain support for their calls for change from powerholders and policymakers.

We plan to build on our Beyond Bars programme, NPC’s longstanding criminal justice research, by building a systems map of the flows of charitable funding into the criminal justice system. Recent research by Clinks showed that one in six criminal justice charities fear for their financial sustainability in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. We will draw together different data sets to show where the money in the system is, and crucially, where it is lacking. We will identify some key intervention points, where extra support from funders would really make a difference, and some effective organisations, which will be in a position to provide vital support as the criminal justice system opens back up again after the pandemic.

We want to help introduce the clarity that we were told is missing from the system and ultimately try to ensure that those who need support can receive it. Through this work, we hope to highlight some areas of vulnerability in system, areas where people like David Blagdon can fall through the cracks. We want to show that it is possible for independent funders to have an impact in the criminal justice system, and show why it is essential if wider change is ever going to happen.

This work will run from February to April 2021, and we are looking to hear from collaborators who are interested in taking part. If you would like to learn more, hear about our progress or have something to add, please do get in touch with me on Theo.Clay@thinkNPC.org

Despite a turbulent policy environment and the effects of Covid-19, it is possible for funders and charities to have an impact in prisons. Here’s how: Click To Tweet