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Our justice system is criminal

Britain’s political class is locked in a cycle of consensus on law and order that costs a lot and delivers little

Prison sentences are getting longer, despite what the British public think. Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty

Not content with its plan to send legitimate refugees trying to come to the UK – which takes only the tiniest fraction of the world’s asylum seekers anyway – to Rwanda, the government is now also planning to send British prisoners overseas.

In a perverse way, it’s at least a sign we can still innovate in one kind of exports in a post-Brexit world, even if it is one that shows the desperation the government is reaching in the ongoing, rolling, systemic crisis that is our justice system.

Nothing in criminal justice works any more. Police manage to catch and charge the culprit in half as many cases today as they did just seven years ago. For that small fraction who get charged, court closures and shortages of both judges and prosecuting lawyers mean serious cases can take years to come to trial – sometimes causing the case to collapse.

And probation, the service intended to rehabilitate offenders once they leave prison, is still on its knees following a completely botched privatisation effort that was eventually reversed and re-nationalised.

But prisons are, if anything, worse than all the rest. In the most recent report of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, only one out of 37 men’s prisons across the country was found to be “good”, with all the rest failing. The UK’s prisons are hopelessly over-full, with multiple prisoners routinely sharing Victorian-era cells intended to sleep just one person.

Funding shortages mean many prisoners are then left in those cells with no activities, education or rehabilitation for 22 or more hours a day. Cells are freezing in winter and stifling in summer. The UK’s endless failure to build anything extends to prisons, too: the government has been trying to build 20,000 more cells to keep up with demand, and these too are delayed, now until 2030.

Prison is failing on all fronts. “It is poor use of the average of £45,000 a year to keep someone in prison if, when they come out, they return to criminality and create more victims of crime,” the report concludes.

The UK is addicted to the idea of locking people up, even though it is patently not deterring criminals because so few of them are caught.

In the 1940s, around 30 people in every 100,000 were in prison. Today, that’s around 160 – an increase of more than 500%.

The effect has become even more stark in recent years: average sentences have increased in length by 57% since this government came into office in 2010. Where the criminal justice system was once about trying to punish criminals and then help them to become productive members of society, it has increasingly become a cruel and vastly expensive place to shove people where they can be forgotten.

The public tend to strongly support long prison sentences – but don’t care enough to notice when action is taken. A study by the Prison Reform Trust found that 75% of the public thought that prison sentences were getting shorter recently, when the opposite is true. Only 2% of the public correctly answered that sentences for murder had greatly increased over the last 20 years – before sentencing reforms in 2003, the custodial component of life sentences for murders averaged 12 years, while today the average is 21 years. Only 6% of the public thought that sentences for murder had increased at all.

Public ignorance about the criminal justice system knows no bounds. A plurality of us think that only 25% of men over 21 convicted of rape go to prison, whereas the real figure is 96%. As a public, we think fewer than half of people convicted of burglary go to prison, and that the figure is falling. In reality, it is 80%, and has risen sharply over the last few decades.

Overall prison sentences – and the proportion of convictions that result in prison sentences – are also up. In 2009, the average prison sentence was just under 14 months. By 2019, it was 19 months.

Politicians and pundits alike tend to shrug off such errors in public judgement with the Love Island defence, that “it is what it is”. We shouldn’t. If the public are going to insist that we deprive people of their liberty for longer, and the public is going to have to pay a huge price tag for doing so, they should at least do so based on what is really happening rather than the imaginary version that exists in their head.

That the idea has been allowed to spread that the UK is getting softer and softer on the fraction of criminals we do catch, even as we get harsher and harsher in reality – and then put said people into inadequate, crumbling facilities that only reinforce their criminal behaviours and remove their alternatives – is a huge failure of the political and media class.

Just as people become caught in cycles of offending from which they cannot escape, our political class is caught in a law and order cycle that benefits absolutely no one. The public are convinced we are getting softer and softer on crime, and so politicians announce new offences whereby they re-criminalise things that are already illegal, and announce longer sentences for existing crimes. The public then completely fail to notice those longer sentences or new crimes, and the cycle repeats. And absolutely no one in mainstream politics calls any of it out.

This political circus hurts everyone. The public are left angry at a “soft” justice system that exists only in their own heads. The low charge rate and endless waits for court means the deterrent effect of justice is ineffective.

Underfunded, overcrowded prisons separate people from their support networks, often give them substance abuse problems, and leave them with few routes to a legal income after they are eventually released. Longer and longer sentences for more serious offences leave people institutionalised. And it all costs more every year.

“Tough on crime” was a great slogan for Tony Blair; so much so that every subsequent politician has run with it. It has proved to be an awful policy for us all.

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