The UK criminal justice system is heading back towards the Victorian era

Martin Rackstraw, Partner in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, criminal and financial crime team.
Martin Rackstraw
3 min Read

The ongoing crisis of overcrowding in the prison system has again been in the news: the Ministry of Justice has recently been forced to request the use of 400 police cells to accommodate prisoners.

The Prisons Minister, Damian Hinds, defended the Government’s handling of the “acute and sudden increase in the prison population” by blaming the recent strike by criminal barristers for the shortage of prison places – stating that “We have long anticipated the prison population rising as a result of those measures, and that’s why we are delivering the largest prison-build programme since the Victorian era, with 20,000 additional places. We’ve already created over 3,100 of these.” 

But other bodies working within the criminal justice system challenged the Government’s attempt to blame the Criminal Bar for the situation, and with good reason.

The chronic overcrowding in the UK’s prisons has not suddenly emerged over the last few weeks. It is the inevitable result of nearly three decades of deliberate government policy, whipped up by sections of the media, to increase the use of prison as a penalty and to lengthen prison sentences.

Successive governments (Conservative and Labour) have, in a relentless drive to lock up ever more offenders, ignored the wealth of evidence that non-custodial sentences are more effective in reducing actual offending. The judiciary and Sentencing Council have too often fallen in line.

Maximum sentences for a range of individual offences are increased now as a matter of routine, with little Parliamentary scrutiny.  A recent example being the maximum sentence for the offence of breaking conditions imposed on public assemblies being increased from three to six months imprisonment – without any convincing explanation being given as to the public need for such a measure. 

At the same time, the period that individual prisoners serve in custody is rising - most noticeably in the case of serious violent or sexual offences where under the Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, prisoners sentenced to between four and seven years will now serve two thirds instead of half their sentence.

None of these measures is accompanied by any compelling evidence that it will make the public safer, because the underlying rationale is to send a political message, not to address in any serious way the issue of offending and how to reduce it. The latest overcrowding panic was therefore as predictable and avoidable, as it is depressing.

My own experience of representing clients held in custody is that overcrowding, exacerbated by years of under investment, has led to conditions that are now unacceptable for a criminal justice system that retains any pretence that imprisonment is a humane means to protect the public and rehabilitate offenders.

Refusing to accept that its own narrowly punitive approach to justice is causing the crisis, the Government falls back on a hugely costly prison building programme as the solution, but it is clear that people are being locked up at a faster rate than prisons can ever be built.

Damian Hinds is right in one respect though – UK criminal justice is heading back towards the Victorian era.

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