Radically reducing the criminal justice system

Tom Kemp draws together ideas raised at recent Reclaim Justice Network events

In October the Reclaim Justice Network organised meetings in London and Manchester with the aim of discussing ways to reduce our reliance on the criminal justice system and what has been called the ‘prison industrial complex’ as methods of solving social problems. I thought it might be helpful to try to summarise some of the ideas that emerged. It’s not intended to provide the settled view of the network, but can hopefully provide a useful basis for future discussion about campaigns and activities.

One key proposal that emerged were campaigns for law reforms to bring about large scale diversion of people away from prisons and other punitive programs. The staged decriminalization of drugs and decriminalization of anti-social behaviour was suggested. Wider decriminalization of what might be called ‘victimless’ crime such as not having a TV licence or sex-work were put forward, as well as large scale diversion of children and migrants from the criminal justice system and other punitive regimes. There were also discussions of reforms to the law relating to sentence length, and in particular ending mandatory sentencing and reforming certain minimum and/or maximum sentences.

Another major theme has been about the role of broader social policy as harm prevention and response. Discussion of prevention can include macro socio-economic policies such as the maintenance of a proper welfare system, a comprehensive social housing regime and reform of the social care system.

More targeted social policy interventions could include the restriction of police presence in schools and ending school exclusions. The implementation of anti-violence and sexual education programmes in schools could offer opportunities for harm reduction. Discussions have also highlighted the need for comprehensive responses to social harm. Ideas included increased community support to victims of crime, forms of social insurance for victims of crime, a comprehensive network of refuges and alternative methods of harm resolution to the police, who often are not appropriate gatekeepers of support for victims.

An engagement in policy includes a willingness to engage with and criticize current institutional structures and actors. In the meetings, some members argued for the abolition and/or reform of certain national agencies that are tasked with constituting or reviewing the criminal justice system. This involves both a national and a local focus. However, as raised by those at the meetings, there will be tensions and contradictions for those working in the system and how to resist supporting and legitimising criminal justice operations.

In order to act on the issues so far, it is important to also offer an engagement with the structural drivers. Concerns have been voiced about the profit motive driving penal expansion. As a consequence, there have been suggestions of a moratorium on prison building and a ban on private profit made from the prison system. There are also broader motives; the media profit from sensationalist stories and our politicians also profit from the climate of fear and their financial links with the companies which benefit from the narratives our prison system generates. There is also the need to see the expansion of prisons as part of the more complex structures of gender, race, culture, mental health and disability which define modern life.

It appears to me that some general principles emerge from these discussions and could guide our objectives for transformative reform. The first is that all interventions need to be no-harm interventions: a response to ‘criminal behaviour’ which reinforces or adds to the factors which generate need for ‘criminal behaviour’ should never be carried out. A second theme is that we need to engage in a demystification of the ‘criminal’ – replacing this with a view of a human with needs and behaviours that can only be understood within a social context. A third is the wish to promote broadly restorative solutions which try to rectify the harm to victims whilst strengthening community bonds.

I feel that the categories of law reform, policy, institutional reform, principles and structure have been latent in the ideas at our past meetings, and may structure our thoughts in our activities to come.


Tom is an LLM student at SOAS focusing on issues related to access to justice. He is a steering committee member motivated by a belief that the law and criminal justice institutions are ill-suited responses to social harms. Tom can be contacted via Twitter @tomgk90. 

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