The need for a new coalition to tackle penal excess

This is a copy of a speech given by Rebecca Roberts on 13 September 2012 at a meeting hosted by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

First of all I want to thank everyone for coming– for travelling, for taking the time to come along to find out more and hopefully offer your support. There is a great mix of people here – representatives from trade unions, legal firms, penal reform organisations – campaigners, students, academics – all with a variety of social policy and criminal justice backgrounds.

The hope for today is that we can begin to gather and organise a coalition of those who want to oppose penal excess and build alternatives. When we get to the end of the meeting you might feel this is not for me or my organisation – and that is okay. But for those of you want to be involved, we want you to own, shape and drive the campaigns and activities that may emerge.

Why do we need a coalition?
There are already some very vocal and well organised campaigns that focus on penal conditions and reforming criminal justice processes. Many of you will be involved in or aware of this kind of work. However, through our recent Reform Sector Strategies project, we learned that because of urgent concerns around penal conditions and the fast moving policy environment there has been a focus on ‘fire-fighting’ – dealing with the immediate issues of the day. But what we also found was that people are concerned about criminal justice expansion and wider issues of inequality and social injustice – but that it is often difficult to find a space for this voice and it is often missing, or silenced or sidelined in policy debate.

The coalition can sit alongside existing campaigns to improve penal conditions. It is hoped that we can work towards creating opportunities for additional and alternative voices in the debate that are focused on calling an end to penal excess and gathering knowledge and support around social justice solutions.

While the political and funding environment is tough, if we can organise effectively there should be scope to offer a necessary counter voice to institutionalised power and the vested interests that increasingly dominating debate.

I’m going to talk for just a few minutes to give you a bit of background, outlining how we got here and the motivation for circulating the call for action for today’s meeting.

How CCJS got here
So, to keep a long story short…. for some time the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) has attempted to better understand the relationship between criminal justice expansion and wider issues of social justice and inequality. Over the last decade we have been working with others to develop and share a critical analysis of the role and function of criminal justice in society.

CCJS’ vision is of a society in which everyone benefits from justice, safety, economic and social security. Our mission is to inspire enduring change by promoting understanding of social harm, the centrality of social justice and the limits of criminal justice. One of our principles (the others of which you can read on our website) is that ‘criminal justice policy and practice should emphasise the minimum resort to custody, and other forms of restraint on liberty, consonant with a just, safe and socially secure society’.

In particular, today’s meeting came about after the completion of CCJS’ Reform Sector Strategies project. As part of that project, which was led by Helen Mills, we looked at community sentences and whether they’d had the intended effect of driving down the prison population – and found little evidence to suggest that they had. Sentencing reforms during the period also failed to generate significant leverage to drive down prison numbers.

There are differing views on the efficacy of sentencing reform and community sentences in reducing prison numbers. However, the evidence indicates that the drivers of the prison population and criminal justice expansion are also subject to much wider political, social and economic currents.

During Reform Sector Strategies we talked to people working in the penal reform sector and found an acknowledgement about the importance of ‘social justice’ – but a lack of clarity about how this can translate into campaigns and opportunities to bring about change in the ‘real world’.

CCJS held a number of events during the project and at the final event, there was a feeling that there was an opportunity to draw together a wider group of individuals and organisations who are concerned about the over-use of criminal justice, it’s expansion and keen to look for ways of promoting social justice concerns within the debate. Many of those people are here today.

The call to action
In the call to action circulated in advance of today’s meeting, that so many of you responded to, it talked about ‘appealing to those who want to build a broad based coalition to confront penal excess and focus on the long term goal of radically reducing the overall scope and size of criminal justice’. It proposed that such a coalition should look at how to deliver campaigns and projects that demonstrate true and long lasting alternatives to criminal justice.

It outlined four possible areas of focus;

1. Expose the realities and failures of criminal justice.
2. Oppose and resist any expansion of criminal justice.
3. Promote a radical reduction in the size of criminal justice.
4. Develop policies for a safer society that do not resort to criminal justice.

Hopefully one or more of these goals will have resonated with you – and that is why you are here.

So, there is quite a lot of challenging stuff here in terms of the nature of the ‘problem’, the solutions and how we participate in and drive an alternative debate about crime, harm and justice. I’ll try to briefly elaborate on each of these in turn.

1. The problem = ‘penal excess’:

‘Penal excess’ is not a term I’ve seen used in many contexts and it might not quite be the right term to describe the ‘problem’. However, it’s been used here to loosely capture the over-use, excessive and harmful aspects of criminal justice policy and practice.

  • The bloated nature of the system in terms of it’s size and scope.
  • The invasion of criminal justice ethos and measures into social policy social policy (housing, employment, education and border control) – operating on punitive principles and often funnelling more people into the criminal justice system.
  • The inherently unjust nature of the interventions and sanctions that take place day in, day out, as part of the normal working of the criminal justice system. We see this through it’s disproportionality – for example targeting and poor outcomes for people on low incomes and black and minority ethnic people.

Importantly, a concern with penal excess is not just about prisons. This is about the courts, policing, the wide range of sanctions and measures and the infiltration of criminal justice into social policy.

2. Possible solutions; looking beyond criminal justice
People have told us that they are keen to support ‘social justice’ considerations but that more work needs to be done to understand and shape this into practical campaigns and programmes.

‘Social justice’ is a bit of a slippery concept – but it sounds slightly more positive than ‘non-criminal justice solutions’. In talking about social justice we risk presenting it as the opposite to criminal justice or some kind of panacea to ‘penal excess’. The point about referring to ‘social justice’ is to locate the discussion away from criminal justice reform and looking more broadly at interventions at a range of levels. From tackling social and financial inequality, to thinking about local projects that focus on needs based approaches that avoid the use criminal justice interventions all together.

Angela Davis in her book ‘Are prisons obsolete?’ (2003) talks about searching for a ‘continuum of alternatives’ –

“We would not be looking for prison like substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment – demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.’

Social justice and ‘non-criminal justice’ solutions and campaigns should be defined by coalition members once this is up and running – but programmes could include violence reduction strategies, community responses to harm, building a more equal society and exploring alternative institutional arrangements to punishment.

This is something that needs clearer definition and work, but there are avenues worth exploring and practical solutions that we can seek out.

3. Need for a new voice in the debate
Through working collaboratively on a number of fronts, it should be possible to confidently establish the argument for a radically reduced criminal justice system as a credible voice in the debate – and to discover and promote social justice programmes to offer genuine alternatives.

There will be a wide spectrum of views on what a ‘radically reduced CJ system’ might look like in terms of its scope and size– but this is about being ambitious and constantly keeping in mind the long term goal where there are other, alternative and more humane, and effective, ways of reducing harm, and dealing with social problems

This is going to be challenging. However, there is plenty we can do. We can say no to criminal justice, and explain why criminal justice isn’t the answer – and seek out and promote alternative, non-criminal justice options.

I want to be clear here about what this is and what this is not. While we are concerned about poor conditions and harmful practices within the criminal justice system, for me this is not about improving community sentences or finding better rehabilitation and treatment programmes. This space is already occupied in the campaigning and policy world.

We want to connect with people who understand the harmful nature of penal excess and recognise that the path to a safer society lies outside of criminal justice. The goal is to work collaboratively to deliver campaigns and projects that demonstrate true and long lasting social justice alternatives. This isn’t about ignoring violence, theft and other harms – we need to develop policies for a safer society that do not resort to police, prisons and punishment.

Rebecca Roberts is Senior Policy Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

This entry was posted in Articles, Comment and Resources. Bookmark the permalink.