Still a crime to be poor? – Reflections on a 30 year career in the Criminal Justice System

Frances Crook

17 May 2021

I’ve spent over thirty years facing up to the criminal justice and penal systems, bearing witness to its cruelties and failings, and as I move on with my life, the whole system is about to enter a new era of punishment.

I began work at the Howard League in the late 1980s when there were fewer than 50,000 men, women and children in prison. Prisons were grim, filthy, smelly, and violent. The horror would sometimes seep out to the horror of the public, when for example teenagers hanged themselves in Leeds or Feltham prisons. The riot in Stangeways and 20 other prisons brought media attention to conditions and the violence inherent in the structure of prisons.

There is always one thing that touches your soul. For me, it was the death of Philip Knight. Philip was a 15 year old who had been in care and was placed in a residential home. He tried to run away and grabbed a bag from a café table to get some cash. He was remanded to Swansea prison where he hanged himself that night. I got to know Philip’s brother and I shouted from the rooftops about his story, which was eventually picked up by the media and made into a TV film. But, it seems, no matter how distressing the stories are, and no matter how many lives are destroyed, the system doesn’t change.

In the 1990s the Labour government understood that something had to be done about the penal system but instead of fundamental reform, they threw money at prisons and prison building. This resulted in more people sucked in at every level, with hundreds of thousands more people being arrested, prosecuted, sanctioned and imprisoned. Police, given targets to arrest more people, had to take the easy option and each year carried out more than a third of a million arrests of children, many as young as 10 years old. Inevitably these children – and adults – were predominately Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups and poor; the people on the street not the people committing serious corporate or environmental crimes. Once arrested, people were prosecuted, so fuelling an expansion of the whole criminal justice machine.

Perhaps the most iniquitous policy of New Labour was the obsession with anti-social behaviour, which targeted people with mental health and addiction problems. It led to idiotic decision making, so women selling themselves on the streets were given exclusion orders which meant they could not go to the women’s centre to get support.

Prisons remained bloated, crowded, and violent. Despite significant investment in building more cells, the inevitable happened, and the cells were filled before they were built.

Prisons had always been used for the fragile and the poor, but over the past decade the population has changed. This can be seen in the assessments of literacy which, back in the 1980s showed three quarters of prisoners were illiterate, whereas today that is about half. The whole criminal justice system is still primarily focussed on the poor, but prisons are now populated with an increasing number of men convicted of sex offences – a classless crime – so we see doctors, priests, and other middle class men convicted of historic sex crimes or internet based child abuse offences.

However, it’s still a crime to be poor and the poor are much more likely to be arrested, punished, and imprisoned than the white middle class. There are two reasons for this: the system is designed to punish certain crimes, the easy ones to detect and deal with that happen on the street or are visible; and, whilst the middle classes commit crimes like tax fraud, these are less likely to be a focus of political concern. When was the last time anyone heard a politician boasting that he was going to recruit 20,000 more police not to walk the streets but to stop tax evasion or corporate malfeasance?

I’ve been working with the criminal justice system for more than 30 years and have seen massive changes in policing and prisons. The courts have barely changed, and anyone spending a few hours in a magistrates court would think they were back in Dickensian times.

Of course there is still racism and bullying in policing, but the improvements are significant. Policing is becoming a graduate service leading to a much more sophisticated understanding of its role. Arrests generally have reduced and police are overseeing interventions in the community that reduce the need to go to court.

I’ve campaigned for less crime and fewer people in prison and I’d like to abolish prisons as they are, but recognising that some sort of safe place for people who have done really horrendous things is probably always going to be necessary, one of the keys to change now and in the future is changing staff. I’d like to see prison roles as graduate jobs, rather like nursing requires a vocational degree.  I started my professional career as a teacher in inner city Liverpool and am passionate about education. I see education as one of routes for a better life, for everyone. The criminal justice system is rarely that, so my wish as I move on is that for the system ‘less is better’.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. For more information about the Howard League please see here

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