As a criminal barrister, I both prosecute and defend, riding the creaking, rusty seesaw that is the criminal justice system to find the balance between justice for victims, and fairness for alleged perpetrators. But most would agree that it is preferable for the overall process to start before someone has done something sufficiently serious to merit the court’s intervention. This article aims to identify some of the preventative measures that should be adopted as part of a Green justice system that would operate more effectively within a more humane, supportive society prioritising prevention of recidivism as much as punishment.
Criminal justice does not operate in a vacuum, and without joined-up thinking about the real causes of offending, crime will not reduce. A Green criminal justice policy should meaningfully target the inequality that is at the root of much offending, and give credibility and value to the throwaway sound-bite ‘tough on crime’. Policy must be generated through consultation with early-intervention schemes, social workers, mental health and education professionals, housing charities as well as the lawyers and politicians. Those who commit acquisitive crimes to fund drug or alcohol dependency, for example, need intervention at an earlier stage, when adult education and consequential thinking programmes are not just another part of a suspended sentence order, but part of a recognition that all members of society had different starts to life.
As part of Green criminal justice, we also need a new approach to financial and environmental crime. The attitude that it is too expensive to investigate serious financial and regulatory crime is unacceptable, when the effect of these crimes can cost the UK millions of pounds and can cost the lives and health of many. If prosecutorial policy, for example, deems it within the public interest to take to the Crown Court a person who has stolen a joint of meat and some hair gel (as I have had to prosecute), shouldn’t we also see those who have breached environmental and financial regulations in the dock? This is arguably a challenge of policing and shifting public perception of what criminality means.
An important task for Green criminal justice is to address inherent inequality in the way police forces carry out their very difficult duties. In London in 2015/16, according to StopWatch statistics, black people were stopped and searched at almost four times the rate of white people, and mixed-race people were searched at almost twice the rate of white people.*
Searches under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (a suspicionless power) saw black people search at almost 21 times the rate of white people, but with only three per cent of searches leading to an arrest. The effort and energy of the police force would surely be better spent supporting the rehabilitation of the victims of crime by being more visible and creating stronger relationships with the communities that they currently label as ‘criminal’.
Whatever crimes people have committed, rehabilitation – to prevent recidivist offending – is a priority in creating a properly functioning criminal justice system. My anecdotal experience of dishonesty offences and violent crime is that whilst initial progress is made, people struggle to maintain the momentum beyond their license period or community order. Under a Green system, offenders who have served their sentences would be assisted with the transition into work, or with childcare. Rehabilitation of offenders is as much a part of housing and education policy as it is criminal justice policy, as without stable accommodation and the realistic prospect of employment, people will not develop the self confidence they need to be more productive members of society.
Under a Green criminal justice system, moreover, we would not pursue the ‘stack it high and sell it cheap’ method of prison administration. Continuing to imprison people with significant mental health problems whilst simultaneously cutting funding and privatising security is fostering a chaotic, drug-fuelled and unproductive prison system that crosses the line between punishment and a breach of human rights. It must be right that we are striving towards a system that is people focused and not just another manifestation of the vast inequality within society.
* The racial categorisations are StopWatch’s and are the only available statistics on stop and search. The Green Party recognises that they are inappropriate in today’s Britain.