It is undeniable that the current criminal justice system is plagued with a multiplicity of problems necessitating comprehensive reforms. The Conservatives’ plan, summarised by Patel’s dicta of “we are coming after you”, merely scratches the surface of a deeply complicated issue. Central to the crumbling criminal justice system is the severe lack of funding at every level of the system, but this was dealt with by the Conservatives in a half-hearted manner.
On a positive note, the Conservatives did make some welcome proposals. One prime example is the promise to increase the number of police on the streets by recruiting 20,000 new police officers over three years. There has been a long-term trend of dwindling police numbers, evidenced by the number of police officers in England and Wales having fallen by more than 21,000 to 122,404 between 2010 and 2018. This leads to slow police response to crime reports, which arguably contributes to rising crime. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of violent and sexual offences involving knives rose from 30,620 to 44,076 between 2010 and 2018. It is expected that the recruitment of more police officers will alleviate the overburdening of the police forces and better combat violent crimes.
For the Conservatives, this marks progress from their previous dismissal of a link between cuts to police numbers and rising crime. Nonetheless, it is still too early to celebrate this achievement, because it is not even clear whether it will be implemented. Funding issues have long been a thorn in the side for the public service, particularly functions closely related to the criminal justice system. It is commonly agreed that the previous cuts to officer numbers were a result of the government’s lack of funding. So far, it seems that there is a real possibility that the new recruitment plan will also fail, considering that the 43 police forces in England and Wales have not yet been informed of how much money they will receive and how many officers they can afford to recruit. With the memory of insufficient resources in the last eight years still fresh, the police forces are likely to exercise extra caution in budgeting. As such, it is expected that the execution of the government’s recruitment plan may be postponed until there is greater clarity on funding.
Strengthening the police’s stop and search power is also within the Conservative’s plan but raises human rights and racism concerns. It is statistically proven that this power is more likely to be exercised on people of African descents than any other ethnic group. Even though the Supreme Court has affirmed that the power to stop and search under the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, an increased use of this power backed by the government may create opportunities for abuse. Thus, it is worth watching out for how the Conservatives will, if at all, put checks to prevent abuse of the power.
The most controversial part of the Conservatives’ proposal revolves around rolling back on the automatic release at the halfpoint of a sentence for the most serious offenders such as rapists and murderers. According to Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, the most violent criminals will serve two-thirds of their sentences before early release can be considered. To complement this measure, 10,000 new prison places will be created to cope with the additional pressure on the prison system as a consequence of longer imprisonments.
Whilst it strikes home the immediate impression of an assertive stance against crimes, this policy may only serve to exacerbate the crisis. UK prisons have been notorious for a slew of problems including overcrowding, filth, drug abuse and violence, all of which can be attributed to the persistent lack of funding to provide for sufficient resources. Prolonging the sentences of violent offenders will further strain the already overstretched prison system. Parallel to the government’s ambiguity over funding for the police recruitment plan, uncertainty looms large over any concrete funding plans to deal with the additional pressure on the prison system despite a promise to create more prison places.
Furthermore, putting more people behind the bar for longer periods is in no way a silver bullet for reducing recidivism, particularly in light of the dismal conditions in most UK prisons. Robert Buckland argued that the current sentencing is too short to properly rehabilitate offenders so that some of them have been released despite still posing a risk to public safety. Yet, the lack of any real, long-term commitment to increasing investment in prisons is unlikely to improve rehabilitation during imprisonments. Owing to the lack of sufficient prison staff, prisoners are often not properly supervised and violence within prisons are not uncommon, as seen in the recent disturbance at HMP Long Lartin where a group of inmates took over part of a building. How can a prisoner be rehabilitated in an environment where anti-social behaviour continues to wield influence? If funding is not secured to improve prison conditions, imposing longer sentences may only serve to worsen offenders’ characters since they become even more out of touch with the society and more likely to be engaged in anti-social behaviour again. Therefore, whilst violent offenders will be incarnated and kept away from the public for a longer period of time, any resultant increase in the level of public safety may be offset by more occurrences of re-offending.
Yet, it is not hard to understand why reforming the prison systems is not on the Conservatives’ agenda: they will not go down well with voters who may be discontented with the government spending taxpayers’ money on offenders. The Conservatives’ motive to score political gains for the upcoming election also explains why some of the other issues with the criminal justice system – which are either hidden from the public view or unlikely to sit comfortably with the public’s aversion to crimes – are not addressed in their plans. For example, the Crown Prosecution Services also bear the brunt of declining budgets, which arguably contributes to discarding of some cases for prosecution or delayed prosecution. Moreover, according to the Law Society, cuts to legal aid and the closure of an increasing number of courts are amongst the top five problems with the broken criminal justice system. In particular, with the imposition of longer sentences for violent crimes, cuts to legal aids risk greater injustice in cases of wrongful convictions due to the defendant’s lack of access to competent lawyers.
Admittedly, given the depth and breadth of problems with the criminal justice system, it is virtually impossible for any committed government or political party to resolve all at one go. It is also imprudent to judge the Conservatives’ approach to criminal justice solely based on their election promises. To get a better idea of the direction that the recent reform of the criminal justice system is heading towards, we may have to wait till post-election.