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Tim Kiely

Barrister, Red Lion Chambers

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Changing the public narrative on crime will take time

The new government’s promise to cut the prison population

Opinion
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The new government’s promise to cut the prison population

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Tim Kiely, a Criminal Barrister at Red Lion Chambers, shares his thoughts on what the new government might mean for criminal justice and, more specifically, the stated aim to reduce the prison population

In his first press conference as Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, echoing the aspirations of the newly-appointed prisons minister, James Timpson, expressed his intention to reduce the prison population. On its face this is an extremely welcome development, and one that those of us who work in criminal justice have been waiting for.

Starmer has reflected on his own personal experience as a lawyer of seeing young people being processed and set on what he calls the “escalator” to prison, noting that “many of them could have been taken out of that system earlier if they’d had support”.

Criminal practitioners will know that the evidence is on the Prime Minister’s side when he says this; there is a growing body of evidence making it very plain that entering the criminal justice system at an early age is a very good way of keeping people trapped in it.

Indeed, the overarching principles for sentencing children and young people make explicit reference to this when they impose a duty on the courts to ‘avoid ‘criminalising’ children and young people unnecessarily’ and to treat custody as a last resort.

The steps towards change

Knowing the benefits of ‘diversion’ from prosecution, it makes sense that the government should take appropriate early steps to intervene. Rebuilding the system of support for young people through ‘youth hubs’ will be a good first step towards undoing some of the damage caused by years of under investment in public life.

Moving on from there to the wider fabric of society, ensuring that people’s needs for secure housing, employment and care in the community are met, would be even better, and case studies in violence reduction from Glasgow to London show the benefits of a more ‘public health’-oriented approach to crime.

Timpson has opined that as many as a third of our current prison population should not be where they are. Whether this is because of missed opportunities for intervention or because their behaviours have been unnecessarily criminalised, this in itself is a bold observation, and one that is certainly worth thinking about in light of these findings.

The situation in the UK

In all this, of course, those of us hoping for a change of approach are at the mercy of two things: the fiscal rules which the government has determined to uphold and which will surely tighten public spending; and the political will to keep following where the evidence leads in the face of a potential backlash.

When Timpson observes that in the UK we are “addicted to punishment”, it is due largely to a media environment which has spent years cultivating the image of a society spiralling into lawlessness, champing at the bit to bring judgment down on offenders’ heads.

It was in this environment that the last Labour government under Tony Blair adopted its posture of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Its creation of numerous new criminal offences, the expansion of the security state and the invention of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order made its own priorities very clear.

The approach of the new government

The new government is to be applauded for recognising that the wider state of society is the key contributor to criminal behaviour, and for appearing to attempt a tonal reset at the very least. But it is unclear how deep that commitment runs.

While Starmer has previously called for a “grown-up” debate about the UK’s drugs policy, for example, he seems reluctant to be drawn on the idea of legalising or decriminalising at least some illegal drugs, the laws on which he explicitly said last year he had “no intention” of changing.

This is to say nothing of how Starmer might approach the issue of immigration, and whether he will reverse the recent criminalisation of those arriving in small boats, having already said earlier this year that safe and legal routes to claiming asylum are, contrary to what many human rights groups assert, “not the answer”. Similarly, Starmer and other Labour figures have sent, at best, mixed messages on the last government’s anti-protest laws.

Changing the public narrative on crime will take time. Ultimately, looking ‘tough’ does much less to create an effective criminal justice system (and society) than compassion, courage and a clear-headed appraisal of the evidence. I hope the Prime Minister can show such qualities.

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