Criminal justice: Amanda Ramsay says a bad situation just got worse

One comprehensive spending review (CSR) commentator dared to ponder: would Labour have landed a more Brown-like ‘clunking fist’ on George Osborne had Ed Balls been the shadow chancellor? No. The man of the moment for Labour was Alan Johnson and he did not disappoint, delivering a deft performance in response to the cuts.

Balls took to the post-announcement airwaves, making his mark as shadow home secretary, characteristically quick to challenge his opposite number, Theresa May, over huge 20% cuts to the policing budget, predicting “massive cuts in police numbers” and a “very dangerous situation for public safety.”
Add the 20% cuts to policing and the massive 23% cuts at the ministry of justice and public order and the social ramifications of the CSR loom enormous. Not that you would know this from either the mainstream or social media discussion.

Ahead of the game, the police federation had already described the anticipated wide-scale cuts in police numbers as heralding “Christmas for criminals”. Labour’s Tony McNulty, a former home office minister, was also quick to conclude that “these cuts, to the crown prosecution service (CPS), courts and probation, will have a huge impact on policing”.

Astonishingly, such significant changes were not mentioned in any election manifesto, a point overlooked by the press. In fact, the Tories stood on a general election pledge to make efficiency-only savings in the civil service. If you believed that, you’d believe anything. The line was that front-line services would be protected; of this the electorate was assured and constantly reminded.

Then, just one day before the CSR, a leaked internal memo from the ministry of justice served to rattle this myth and the truth started to surface. Commenting on the anticipated cuts in this memo, a senior civil servant spilled the beans: “The front line will bear the brunt of this, with an estimated reduction of 11,000”. According to this document, 14,000 crucial posts are expected to go, such as prison and probation officers, along with magistrate court staff.

The 2010 CSR is not only a crisis; it is a conundrum. Either the figures or the thinking just don’t add up: if probation officer cuts mean that courts end up passing shorter custodial sentences rather than issuing community service orders, costs of incarceration will be far higher than the money saved from axing probation officer salaries.

Imprisonment always divides people. In June, Ken Clarke, as secretary of state for justice, made a point of publicising his diametrically opposed view to Michael Howard’s famous 1993 declaration that “prison works”. Clarke instead chose to repeat a line from the 1991 white paper, describing prison as: “The expensive way to make bad people worse”.

With the ever-growing cost of imprisonment – now a massive £36,000 a year per prisoner – Clarke has since committed to reducing prisoner numbers by 3,000. But there is much disunity within Tory ranks over this issue. Even the prisons minister is at odds with the justice secretary, along with senior Conservative colleague, David Davis, who challenged Clarke in July on this: “if you’re going to cut prison places, you’ve got to come up with better options. I haven’t seen any signs of that yet.”

Community service orders are an alternative to prison, but the probation service already has great difficulty in enforcing orders and is already over-stretched. Court orders are already being ignored, even before the prospective cuts of 3-4,000 probation officers.

One London probation officer describes his main concerns:

“when people breach their orders, they often don’t end-up going back to court, largely because of poor management. If taken back to court by the probation service, many people breach their orders but go on to be treated very leniently; for some reason, courts often see breaches of community service orders as very minor matters, issuing very small fines as a penalty, which makes enforcement even more difficult”.

Another probation officer from the same office adds some more background:

“During the time when Thatcher was in power, mental hospitals were emptied under the spurious notion of ‘care in the community’; mental institutions were turned over to housing estates and the inmates went on to become part of London’s ‘tramp’ population, often ending up in prison. Indeed, we had to employ agency nurses to deal with all the ex-mental patients who were certainly not a control problem, once their medication had been regulated; hardly the best use of prison facilities”.

The system was already highly imperfect, with probation, prison and police officers often left to pick up the pieces of social mishap and criminal justice blunders. Prisons are hugely expensive and in many cases clogged-up with people who should never have been locked-up in the first place; petty criminals, the mentally ill, people who need alcohol or drugs rehabilitation or those who’ve failed to pay their council tax.

It’s time for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, cuts or no cuts.

Amanda Ramsay was a cabinet member in the London Borough of Merton.

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