What Does the Criminal Justice System Look Like in 2024? — Clean Break



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What Does the Criminal Justice System Look Like in 2024?

Clean Break Trustee Naima Sakande explains what the criminal justice system really is, and what needs to change.

The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women is a bold theatrical experience which asks what justice really is, and who gets to decide. Five Clean Break Member artists share on stage their own experiences of judgement, blended with stories we all know of historical and mythical women who transgressed the laws and morals of their time. The show queries the theatrical nature of our criminal justice system, inviting the audience to reflect on their own gaze and role in forming our collective expectations of women.

But what do we mean when we talk about a ‘criminal justice system’, and what does this system really look like for women in 2024?

Naima Sakande is a trustee of Clean Break, a solicitor and freelance researcher. She was formerly Deputy Director of the criminal justice charity, Appeal, where she managed the Women's Justice Initiative, representing women who have been criminalised and have histories of domestic abuse and mental ill health. We asked Naima to explain the criminal justice system from her perspective, and tell us what she thinks needs to change. Read her interview below.

When we talk about ‘the criminal justice system’, what are we actually talking about? What makes up this ‘system’?

Philosophically, it's our broad system of deciding what we do with people who don't abide by the ‘societal contract’ as codified in the law, which is decided by parliament.

There are many parts of the criminal justice system itself. For ‘lower-level offences’ there is the Magistrates Court, where the vast bulk of criminal cases are heard in England and Wales. More serious cases are heard by the Crown Court, where you would normally be tried by a jury.

Then there is the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, which sits in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, which deals with appeals. Then at the very top of the pile, you've got the Supreme Court, that decides on issues of public importance, and where there are issues of law that need clarifying.

So those are the tiers of the courts, but the criminal justice system encapsulates more than that. It also involves the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service, who together will construct a case against a person. And of course, it involves the prison system, where if you're sentenced to custody, you'll be held.

Beyond that, it includes the probation service and the youth justice system for people who are convicted under the age of 18. It’s a vast, sprawling system.

What do you think are the key issues with the criminal justice system in 2024?

We’re dealing with a resource starved system. Since austerity and big legal changes in 2012, there have been huge cuts to funding of the criminal justice system, which has had far-reaching consequences.

This has impacted people’s realities in prisons, but I think the main impact has been on the front end of the criminal justice system, in legal representation. Legal aid has been massively constrained, so it's much harder to get proper legal representation for cases. Last year we had the great summer of strikes, which saw barristers striking. The number of unrepresented people being tried has gone up significantly, and that has knock on effects across the system. There's a huge backlog in the courts, that the government tried to blame on COVID-19 and the fact that courts were closed. But that obscures the fact that there was an enormous backlog before the lockdowns, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which we're still struggling to clear. I think people often have an idea that if somebody's arrested, that within a few months you'd have a trial and justice would be served, whereas the reality is people sit in limbo for years waiting for court dates, waiting for disclosure, waiting for the police to have completed their investigation. Everything is slow, inefficient, underfunded.

Funding is also squeezed in the community sector, affecting the movement to drive people away from custody and address the root causes of why people end up being criminalised. The number of programmes that are available has been diminished, for example housing services, benefit services, addiction services - addiction is a huge problem for people and I will never understand why it is criminalised, it's a public health issue.

How does the criminal justice system specifically impact women?

Women coming into contact with the criminal justice system are some of the most vulnerable people in society, they tend to have much higher rates of mental ill health, are more likely to have been in the care system and to have experienced real social deprivation.

We have a blunt criminal justice system that is not set up to treat individuals as vulnerable people to whom we have a duty of care.

We have a very brusque, masculine system of justice, that doesn't take into consideration the particular needs of the women going into that system. The drivers of crime for women tend to be social in nature, and the root causes are best tackled in the community. Instead, we are shoehorning people, for whom in other contexts we would have severe concern, into a very brutal criminal system that provides them with very little additional resources or support. Therefore, I would say the key issues are that women's needs are not being met, because the system is not designed to meet them.

When I was working on the Women's Justice Initiative, I was working with women who had some of the most challenging life histories that I'd ever heard. Hearing their life histories, I could completely understand how they've come into contact with the criminal justice system, and how diversion away from it could have been as simple as being provided affordable housing at the right moment, being given support to exit a dangerous relationship, having an independent income stream. For women, there's a real disconnect between the vulnerabilities and needs of those coming in, and a system that's set up to do something fundamentally different, which is to punish.

What change would you like to see in the criminal justice system and beyond?

The criminal justice system is an area where policy making is very far removed from the evidence, which makes me very frustrated.

We have so much evidence of what works

diversion away from custody works

treating addiction works

providing secure housing works

support in exiting abusive relationships works

Do you know what doesn't work? Prison.

One of the biggest changes I would implement is evidence-based policy making based on what works. We've got data from Women Centres that have done really impressive work codifying and evidencing the difference that they make, showing that they reduce recidivism and improve life outcomes.

People think my approach betrays purely a bleeding heart, lefty mentality. I mean, yes, perhaps I am a bleeding-heart lefty! But at the same time, even with a hard-nosed, keen economic and pragmatic lens, you can look at the evidence and see it doesn't make any sense for us to be pouring taxpayer money into initiatives that do not work. The fact that the government’s committed to building more prison places and hiring more police officers - things that have no direct correlation on reducing crime or reducing the drivers of crime makes me so frustrated. So, the first place that I would start is to look at the copious evidence of what works and implement it.

Beyond the facts and figures, I think the arts, and Clean Break’s approach in particular, is so important. If people don't listen to the evidence-based reason around what works in the criminal justice system, Clean Break goes to the nerve-centre, and makes you experience it, makes you have an emotional and experiential connection with those issues. I think that can change minds in a profound way.

Not enough credit is given to the arts for its ability to challenge and change people's minds. The arts allow you to experience things that you might not have in real life, and could play a really important role in our current moment of policy making and public conversation around the kind of society that we want to build.

The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women looks at our collective judgement of women across time, what do you hope audiences will take away from the production?

What excites me most about The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women is how it plays with the allegory of theatre, the theatre of the stage and the theatre of justice. It's very apt, the way that a courtroom is set up is just like theatre! People have their roles, their costumes, their lines. They have their language, the way they’re supposed to address the judge, or address other advocates. There's something exciting about making that connection literal by putting it on the stage.  

I think it will prompt us to think about justice as collective, because justice only makes sense when it's collective. In a lot of ways theatre is the same, it’s about spreading ideas, and it only makes sense if it's in community and it’s shared. I think audiences will be inspired to think laterally and think outside the box about what the justice system is.

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