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Penal excess, Prison, Social justice

Public look beyond the criminal justice system to reduce crime

Vicki Helyar-Cardwell outlines findings from a recent ICM poll.

The Ministry of Justice and Home Office are not the only Government departments accountable for the crime rate, according to voters. A recent ICM poll on behalf of the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) asked people which three areas they felt the Government should invest in to prevent crime. Unequivocally, jobs and the economy were deemed to be the most vital areas for investment, with backing from 64% of respondents from across a wide range of ages and regions. Drug addiction programmes was next on the list, followed by parenting programmes, and mental health care.  Interestingly, building more prisons was the least popular of all suggested crime reduction strategies.

Not only does this demonstrate the significant responsibility attributed to Government departments and social institutions outside traditional ‘criminal justice’ boundaries to prevent crime, it also challenges the presumption that the public holds a ‘lock them up’ attitude – no matter what the cost or effectiveness. 

Indeed, after decades of locking up more and more people, a prison population which has more than doubled and persistently high reoffending rates, it may be there is in fact little public support for squandering more money on prison building. This is especially important when public spending is being squeezed in so many other important areas.

As a recent CJA paper The Top 10 Criminal Justice Myths has highlighted, the drastic increase in the prison population was, at most, a minor factor in reducing crime in recent years, despite the alarming cost.  And we know that crime can be reduced at the same time as the prison population as has been the case in several other European countries in recent years, notably Germany and the Netherlands.

With two years to go until the next general election, the challenge for all political parties is to avoid the hollow ‘tough’ criminal justice rhetoric and instead to focus on practical measures, such as drug treatment and better mental health care. The public want smarter solutions – let’s hope politicians are brave enough to try.

 Vicki Helyar-Cardwell is Director of the Criminal Justice Alliance.

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