prison cell

Taking a whole-system approach to criminal justice

By Theo Clay 20 January 2022 4 minute read

A week may be a long time in politics, but three months is no time at all in the criminal justice system.

Estimates from the National Audit Office (NAO) show that in the three months from the end of March 2021 to the end of June 2021, the vast Crown Court backlog increased by a half, when it was hoped it would begin to fall. There are now 61,000 cases waiting to make their way through the Crown Court, with the backlogs expected to continue beyond 2024.

The magistrates courts also have a backlog nearly six times this size. Yet this week, the government announced that magistrates would be taking on more serious cases, in order to ease the burden on the Crown Court.

This backlog is a huge problem for the criminal justice system. It affects victims who have to wait even longer for justice. It affects witnesses who may forget key details. And it affects defendants who are kept on remand, without trial, in a prison system that is still essentially on lockdown because of the pandemic. All of this undermines people’s faith in the system.

Complexity in the criminal justice system

The problems in the courts are compounded by the problems found more widely in our criminal justice system. We spend so much time treating symptoms rather than engaging with upstream causes—pursuing policies like short prison sentences which do nothing to reduce crime.

The NAO report ended by saying that given the complexities in the criminal justice system, if the Ministry of Justice was to tackle the court backlogs, it needed to take a ‘whole-system’ view of the problem. We couldn’t agree more.

This complexity was the key reason why we began our mapping of the criminal justice system: we conducted interviews with people with lived experience and ran a series of workshops to try to bring some clarity to this issue. Complexity is dangerous—it can lead to headaches for campaigners, apathy from the public, and even worse, fatalism from policymakers: a view that things can never change. This breeds inaction from those very people who we need to take action—continuing with ineffective treatments and ignoring the cause of the problem. An interviewee for our recent research put it well:

With a little step back from the judiciary, with a little step back from the system itself, we can start looking at why this person is committing crime … Once you get caught in that revolving door … it’s so difficult to get out of it if prison is the only option that the courts have.

Overlooked and underfunded areas

In our work we wanted to ensure that funding was going to the right places to bring about change. We mapped out the factors affecting reoffending, and also mapped out the charity sector funding going to each area, to try and identify areas in need of support, where extra funding could help tackle the causes of crime. Our analysis found that the vast majority (86%) of charity sector funding was going on treating symptoms—working with people in the community once they have served their sentence.

Further upstream, we identified pivotal intervention points that are being missed or underfunded:

  • Sentencing that tackles the causes of crime—Evidence-based sentencing in the courts, for example a sentence that engages with the underlying mental health issues driving criminal behaviour, is absolutely vital to an effective criminal justice system, however our analysis showed that only 0.4% of funding goes to the few charities who work in the courts.
  • Transitions between services—Making sure people don’t fall through the cracks when they leave prison is vital to preventing them falling back into the system, but only 0.6% of charitable funding is currently going to bridge these cracks in the system.
  • Political advocacy—Tackling the regressive policies that underpin our criminal justice system, like those short sentences mentioned earlier, requires advocacy for reform but a few organisations here receive only 1.5% of total charity sector criminal justice funding.
  • Speaking to the public—Finally, organisations like Transform Justice and others have shown that there is space to shift public views on the criminal justice system. This is vital to ensuring progressive changes are not rolled back. However, only 0.3% of the funding we analysed is going to offering the public a positive vision of what the criminal justice system could look like.

An important year for criminal justice

There is a lot of work to do in these overlooked and underfunded areas. We are keen to hear from funders who want to bring about systemic change. We want to have a conversation about how they can use their talents and assets most effectively, and take a whole system approach.

In the meantime, we will be building on these foundations. This year, we are expecting the long-promised royal commission on improving efficiency in the criminal justice system. This provides a once in a blue moon opportunity to bring the government’s attention to an area that has been ignored at best or seen as an electoral poker chip at worst. We are currently working on new ideas to make the most of this important moment, and we are looking for partners and supporters who want to help us do this.

If three months is no time at all in the criminal justice system, then a year is also a short window—but a vital one we’ve got to use. We’d like to hear from others who feel the same, and want to use this year to plant the seeds for a fairer criminal justice system.

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