Downsizing criminal justice: What about the workers?

If we were to radically reduce the size of the criminal justice system, what would happen to those who livelihoods depend on it? We live at a time of mass unemployment – wouldn’t we simply be adding to the unemployment queue?

Whether the economy is in good or bad shape, and it’s looking pretty bad until 2020 at the least, there is an obligation on any project that wants to see an end to criminal justice excess to outline what happens to people who earn a living through helping to run the system.

The key issue here is that the size and shape of criminal justice is not a random occurrence but an organised policy response by government to a set of social conditions and behaviours – it is a planned solution.  It is equally possible to plan our way out of criminal justice by providing different social and institutional responses to behaviours that are harmful: such a strategy would, of course, encompass the 98 per cent of harmful behaviours in society that never come to the attention of criminal justice in the first place.

One example of such a different route is that suggested by Rob Allen in an article published some time ago by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Writing about the youth imprisonment Rob argued: ‘Finland has tiny numbers of young offenders locked up but accommodates large numbers of children and young people in non custodial residential institutions of one type or another. These include reformatories, children’s homes, youth homes and family group homes. By far the largest number – almost 4,000 – are held in special psychiatric units. If England and Wales had the same number of psychiatric beds per head of population as Finland, there would be some 40,000. In fact, there are fewer than 1,200.’   (See:  p22.)

Four things strike me about such a policy response to problematic behaviours:

Firstly, in the UK, the movement to close down mental hospitals in the 1970s led to transcarceration of people with psychiatric problems from mental health to criminal justice institutions (a cheaper planned solution).   By labelling someone as ‘bad’, rather than having a mental health problem, we have side-stepped the ethical arguments around mass incarceration.

Secondly, I am not advocating the building of new institutions for those with mental health problems. Instead, we would need to invest in schemes, some of which Rob Allen points to, to support those who present with behaviours most of us might find troubling.

Thirdly, whatever the non-criminal justice policy mix it will, in all likelihood, not be as cheap as prison, probation and community sentences. I have never been convinced by the econometric arguments that suggest non-criminal solutions are cheaper – we might have to spend more in the short term to get benefits in the long run.

Lastly, such a new policy mix, whatever the diversity of services being offered, will require skilled and trained people to operationalise it on the ground – this is where such a strategy could lead to a growth in employment, or certainly a balanced transition to a different way of managing the most troubling behaviours.

Will McMahon is the Deputy Director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies.

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