Is Justice Reinvestment a viable solution to the UK Prison Crisis? Part 2

In part 2 of my special look at the penal system in the UK I shall analyse more aspects of JR, arguments against JR and where the government can go from from here. If you missed part 1, here is is.

Prisons are also disproportionality represented with people from deprived backgrounds as Cavadino and Dignan highlight,

“In short, prison inmates are disproportionately likely to be drawn from disadvantaged, indeed multiply disadvantaged, sections of the community” (2007:197)

Cavadino and Dignan rightly suggest that the vast majority of prisoners are from socially deprived areas. This is perhaps the biggest indication yet that JR is required in the UK because JR looks for funds to go to areas with societal problems. Rather than using tax revenue to build and service institutions that are not only failing to provide the rehabilitation services required, they are also increasing the discontent amongst prisoners and having very little impact on criminal activity.

Reoffending, overcrowding and a general misallocation of resources appear to be the underling problems that is undermining the current penal system in the UK. Not only does the current austerity programme compound the problem further, it highlights the need for radical reform. This will ensure that there is a long-run reduction in both incarceration and spending on prisons. Moreover, the reduction in spending would adhere to the current government’s ethos of reduced fiscal expenditure as well as correcting societal problems. What is clear is the fact that the current system cannot continue to adopt the same inefficient methods.

JR would however present a radical change to the penal system and could be too ambitious or too unrealistic. In this nation, that is somewhat risk adverse, it would take a courageous and tenacious government to implement this ambitious project. Will a government really go ahead with it? I’m not too sure. Firstly, due to the scope of the project; implementing what could be viewed as a significant overhaul of an already highly bureaucratic system may require many years of political discussion, that will not only assess the validity of the project, but also the cost, timing (it would take to implement) and several other factors that require a calculated and measured approach, to a system that is already at a crisis point. Thus JR may provide a suitable long-term solution, but people may not be prepared to allow the system to settle.

The nature of criminality itself also requires action straight away and the public may not be too convinced about a scheme that allocates funds to areas of high criminality, one could even suggest that criminality is being somewhat ‘rewarded.’ This procedure could aggravate tensions in society and lead to higher social discontent, as opposed to higher societal integration, leading to further division and possible exacerbation of the problems at the heart of the criminal activity. Furthermore, the lack of conclusive empirical evidence does suggest that JR is a triumphant theory and at its infancy stages in the United States does appear to work, but contrasting attitudes, distinct legal systems and so on does highlight that it is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution and the current penal crisis may require both a realistic short and long-term resolution and JR appears only to work as a viable long-term solution, due to the nature of many of the proposals.

It is also difficult to suggest that politicians would be prepared to relinquish significant influence over criminals into local government. The electorate usually views a government that ‘boasts’ about being tough on crime as ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ and the zero-tolerance attitude may gain significant political gain for those who want political power. Because of the nature of JR and its long-term approach, it does depend on the government’s attitude towards tacking not only the penal system, but also criminality in general; therefore, unless the government were prepared to sacrifice short-term gain in popularity, there does not seem to be any short-term political ‘point-scoring’ by implementing JR in the UK.

Not only will the lack of ‘political point scoring’ affect politician’s attitudes towards full implementation of JR, the British Crime Survey identified that different areas are generally associated with higher risks.

Living in an area classified as ‘hard pressed’ (predominantly low-income families, residents in council estates, people living in high-rise buildings) or ‘urban prosperity’ (prosperous professionals, young urban professionals and students living in town and city areas) gives you a higher risk of criminal damage to your home than living elsewhere. It is also well established that burglary rates in the 88 most deprived areas are higher than average.” (Allen and Stern 2007)

Demographic differences may lead to further misallocation of resources, allocating some funds to a particular area may solve that particular problem, but linking that problem directly to criminal activity may prove difficult. The resulting ambiguity could waste further resources and not actually tackle the problem. Furthermore, the public may not approve of tax revenue being allocated to certain areas that do not directly benefit them. A prison built with taxes generated from the public is a tangible asset, but tax revenues being utilised in local communities do not have the same effect, people may want to actually see their result as opposed to being told what it is doing without having palpable evidence that it is actually working.

Having said that, JR still seems to integrate all the essential characteristics that a true reforming legislation should contain. By looking towards the root of the problem, it automatically attempts to solve the greater issue and confronting the problem at its cause, it also does not appear to waste so much public money, something that Phillips (in Fox and Albertson) highlights.

“If you decide to lock up one man for a minimum term of 30 years, you are investing £1 million or more in punishing him.” (Phillips 2007:6)  

The opportunity cost of imprisonment is clear, Phillips goes onto state that that £1 million could be used in other areas in society. With JR, £1 million could be invested in a range of societal programmes, greater communal initiatives, more funding towards group homes and so on. Programmes actually designed to curb criminal activity, to encourage greater societal cohesion and educate future generations against criminal activities.

Therefore, if the public needs convincing of an alternative to imprisonment, then JR provides an alternative, it should be seriously considered as the long-term solution to the prison conundrum in the UK. Because JR grants local government greater autonomy with regards to released prisoners and the societies they affect, this micro control creates a realistic chance of circumventing the negativity associated with re-offending. Local governments have a much greater idea where investment is required and so on, it will also allow society to benefit as a result. In the long-run, criminality and more specifically, understanding why certain individuals fail or choose a life that leads onto criminality can be understood and thus reduced significantly.

As Albertson and Fox highlighted, public opinion may be shifting towards alternatives to prison, if this is the case, the public may be more inclined to listen to Ken Clarke’s proposals because they seem to share many of the ideas that are linked with JR. Despite calls from former Home Secretary Michael Howard not to reform and remain tough on crime, attitudes may be starting to shift towards long-term alternatives to prison.

Is Justice Reinvestment a viable solution to the UK Prison Crisis? Part 1


The following is part one of a special look at the prison system in the UK. The prison population is near full capacity and incarcerating criminals is an arduous and expensive process. Justice Reinvestment seeks to allocate resources away from building and funding of prisons and looks to invest resources into greater societal schemes that could prevent crimes in the long term.

Justice Reinvestment (JR) is a simple concept, reallocating resources away from prisons and investing funds into societal schemes. The resources invested are aimed at eradicating the problems that lead onto criminal activity before they manifest. That should result in the long-term reduction of the number of incarcerations. The prison system in general is wasting resources and failing to tackle the long-term problem of reoffending.

There are currently 84,000 prisoners in the UK, full capacity, despite household and violent crime falling by 46% since 1995. Sentencing has not followed in the same direction. The inverse relationship between the drop in crime and rise in incarcerations highlight the odd relationship between high sentencing and fall in crime. Crime has fallen yet more people have been sent to jail.

Clearly the current prison situation is both inefficient and ineffective as greater emphasis should be devoted to criminal prevention rather than punishment, tackling the act once it has occurred may “solve” the crime, but the greater problem of why an individual or group have committed the crime itself highlights the need for a substantially greater understanding of crime prevention. The current prison system does not tackle crime prevention very well.

Philanthropist George Soros and his firm Open Society first expressed concerns with regard to similar problems within the US penal system, Allen and Stern suggest,

“George Soros has been questioning the cost of maintaining the current unprecedented level of imprisonment in the US and asking whether a redirection of resources away from criminal justice and into social, health and educational programmes might not make a more effective long term contribution towards creating safer and stronger communities.” (Justice Reinvestment – A New Approach to Crime and Justice 2007)

The concerns raised here share similarities to those being expressed in the UK, hence why JR could provide a realistic solution to the current penal crisis.

The prison crisis in the UK is the manifestation of both the latter stages of the John Major government (1990-1997) and more significantly Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. (1997-2010.) The manifesto promise of not only being tough on crime and more significantly the causes of crime, the current prison crisis has not benefitted from their efforts.

“On crime, we believe in personal responsibility and in punishing crime, but also tackling its underlying causes – so, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, different from the Labour approach of the past and the Tory policy of today.” (Labour 1995)

The idea of JR would appear to adhere to the Labour manifesto of 1995 that promised to act on the causes on criminal activity. The proactive approach is likely to provide remarkable knowledge on reoffending. The data could prove pivotal for identifying patterns and relationships between the criminal and their background. Identifying certain traits in societal behaviour would provide insightful knowledge on reoffending and resources would be in place to tackle it directly.

The crisis could be viewed as a simple problem of demand being greater than supply. Half of all prisoners reoffend. This has increased pressure on the prison system to reduce overcrowding so that prisons not only punish, but educate, rehabilitate and reform prisoners so that they can reintegrate themselves back in society reformed and not reoffend. Currently, resources are at full capacity and the prisons are struggling to provide those services due to the sheer numbers of incarcerated. The revolving door culture with criminals is putting further strain on the troubled economy. JR provides insight in reducing the long-term problem of high reoffending. This is by no means a short-term solution; it requires a more long-term approach and immediate reoffending rates are not likely to fall dramatically. However, what JR would provide is an in depth understanding of the why reoffending is so high.

No room left.
No room left.

For several years tough on crime or zero tolerance translated into imprisoning record numbers of criminals. Also, building more prisons appeared to offer the solution to the growing demand for prison space. All of this occurred whilst criminal activity was falling. In hindsight, it would appear that the government at the time appeased the general public’s call for the justice system to be tough on crime. JR would provide a viable alternative to the current problem, which would appear to be a problem with central legislation and the general short-sightedness of politics in the UK, local government require much greater micro control over released prisoners. With greater control, local authorities could look to improve certain areas that are disproportionally represented in prisons and look for those funds to help improve the affected regions. It may seem unlikely at this point, due to the scope of the project. Nonetheless, stiffer discussions in Parliament should take place. The most recent reshuffle saw David Cameron remove Kenneth Clarke and replace him with Chris Grayling. Many view this move a political move to the right. Clarke was rather too ‘liberal’ for many Tories who favour a hardline approach. Robert Winnet of The Telegraph suggests

“His [Ken Clarke] pro-European stance and relatively liberal views towards criminal justice have brought him into conflict with Mr. Cameron and other senior Tories” 

In addition, for true justice, emotion (which public opinion is mainly driven by) must be removed in order to maintain the authenticity and the impartiality of Justice. However, the nature of the political system in the UK requires politicians to be rather myopic with long-term decisions.  This emphasizes why JR could offer a viable solution for the capacity problems in the UK.

Albertson and Fox highlight the fact that public opinion appears to at least be shifting towards policies that would appear to support many of the ideas and suggestions that are presented in the Justice Reinvestment proposal.

“The public do not rank prison highly as a way of dealing with crime. Most think that offenders come out of prison worse than they go in.”

What this shows is that the public is aware of some of the immediate concerns regarding the penal system, reinforcing the need for desperate reform. By the same token however, there does appear to be a ‘stubbornness’ or lack of understanding from large sections of the public with regard to criminal justice and members still believe that sentences are too soft. The former Justice secretary Kenneth Clarke nonetheless was advocating for substantial change to the current penal system. In an interview with The Times in 2011 he not only expressed concerns over the cost of the current penal system, but also the conditions of prisons in general.

“Prisons are financially unsustainable. It is just very, very bad value for taxpayers’ money to keep banging them up and warehousing them in overcrowded prisons where most of them get toughened up.”

Whilst Clarke’s concerns regarding the aggregate cost of the prison system in the UK is justified due to the current state of the UK economy, implementation of Justice Reinvestment would require centralized power from national government being transferred to local government. This would involve “substantial transfer of funds.” (Allen and Stern 2007) The criminal system and local governments are not exempt from the public sector cuts. This outlines why JR moves funds around, rather than demand more. So it is a question of where those funds go.

Clarke’s main concerns appear to be surrounding the aggregate cost of the current penal system, it does display why the current system is simply not sustainable. JR explicitly states that local authorities will have greater micro control over how funds are utilised. In theory at least, this would present a viable alternative to the current, unsustainable system.

In part 2 I shall look into the prison population further, look at JR in more detail and arguments against JR.