Kill the Bill: How Expanding the Criminal Justice System Upholds Systems of Oppression

Holly Barrow from the Immigration Advice Service comments on how vast expansions to the criminal justice system under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would harm the most vulnerable in society.

WORDS Holly Barrow

PHOTOGRAPHY Angela Christofilou

Over the course of the past year, it has become increasingly clear that the British public faces more than a health crisis. Through the enforcement of lockdown measures, the government has attempted to police its way out of the pandemic, granting sweeping powers to officers under the Coronavirus Act 2020. This approach has not only demonstrably failed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it has also had devastating repercussions for marginalised communities in particular. Yet, despite a number of damning reports in recent months pointing to the discriminatory patterns that have emerged under the police’s newfound powers, many members of the public remained naive to the severity of the issue until only last month.

This, in itself, speaks to a level of privilege that must not be downplayed. People of colour have borne the brunt of these expansive police powers throughout the duration of the pandemic, with Covid-19 measures disproportionately targeting marginalised communities. In July 2020, news reports revealed that police in England and Wales were twice as likely to fine young Black and Asian men, for example, than young white men. In October, it was found that Black people were also nine times more likely to face stop and search than white people, with figures showing that police use of stop and search powers were at their highest in six years.

#KillTheBill National Weekend of Action

Despite this, many were only forced to address the escalating issue when the Metropolitan police violently shut down a vigil for Sarah Everard in March. Confronted with images of officers pinning women to the ground, the public was also alerted to a new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons just days after the abhorrent scenes in London.

The Police Bill not only seeks to diminish our civil liberties, but would similarly allow for vast expansions to the criminal justice system at the expense of the most vulnerable in society.

The Bill, which has been the subject of significant backlash ever since and has subsequently been delayed by the government, proposes to expand police powers even further. Discourse has largely focused on how the Bill erodes the right to protest; an understandable and urgent concern, since it would allow the police to suppress any demonstration it deems highly disruptive to the public, essentially criminalising the very nature of protest. However, there are a number of other equally pertinent implications that are currently slipping under the radar.

The Police Bill not only seeks to diminish our civil liberties, but would similarly allow for vast expansions to the criminal justice system at the expense of the most vulnerable in society. Some of the legislation proposed under the Bill includes powers to stop the automatic early release of offenders who pose a danger to the public, double the maximum sentence for those who assault an emergency worker (such as a police officer), enhance stop and search powers (despite clear evidence of racial disparity), and to introduce minimum custodial sentences for ‘third strike’ burglars and for adults found to possess a knife for a second time.

#KillTheBill National Weekend of Action

Ministers claim that this ‘tough’ legislation will help keep communities safe – data suggests otherwise. It is easy for the public to lap up government soundbites that promise to provide greater protections through the promotion of a stricter criminal justice system. The prospect of stopping the automatic early release of serious or violent offenders, for example, will likely be praised; people feel comforted by the prospect of ridding the streets of those who are considered to pose a threat to society. Yet, time and again, researchers have made clear that harsher sentencing does not reduce crime – whether violent or non-violent. Nor does our criminal justice system need to be ‘tougher’; England and Wales already stand to have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe.

A study carried out in 2020 by researchers from the University of Cambridge and Royal Holloway found no evidence to suggest that punitive prison policies influence a change in the nature or severity of offending. Instead, the dramatic increase in the number of people serving life sentences in England and Wales only exacerbates the UK’s already overcrowded prisons. Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson, reinforced this, stating: “Longer sentences haven’t improved public confidence or safety before, and they won’t now. But they have helped produce a prison system that fails to deliver either safety or rehabilitation.”

What we need are community-based solutions and greater funding for services that support people as opposed to criminalising them.

We are conditioned from a young age to view criminals as inherently evil people who ought to spend time behind bars – but imprisonment often perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence and poverty. Data shows that exposure to violence in prison settings frequently undermines rehabilitation, reentry, and mental and physical health. Criminal justice solutions are purported to tackle social problems – realistically, they demonise and punish those who are often victims themselves. In the UK alone, more than half of prisoners were abused as children, and 46% of those in women’s prisons are survivors of domestic abuse. Moreover, the prison complex reflects the racial inequality present in the wider justice system – 26% of England and Wales’ prisoners are Black, Asian or minority ethnic, despite making up just 10% of the overall population.

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last year following the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police detective compelled people to interrogate the institutions that we uphold as essential to a functioning, democratic society – particularly the criminal justice system. What becomes clear when looking at such systems is that they merely maintain social inequalities and oppressions, as opposed to helping to eradicate them. Those living in poverty, homeless people, minority ethnic people, migrants, LGBTQA+ people, sex workers, those with mental health needs, and those who have a substance dependency are all more likely to be viewed and treated as criminals even when they are the victims of crime. This begs the question: who really benefits from tough legislation and incarceration?

#KillTheBill National Weekend of Action

It is a common misconception that the US faces a unique battle with its prison industrial complex – in fact, the UK operates in a similar manner. When we look at the overlapping interests of government and private companies which profit from incarceration, we begin to recognise who these punitive policies really serve. As consecutive governments have continued to decimate the welfare state in the UK over the past decade, they have instead invested funds into building a number of ‘super-prisons’.

The current government boasted just months ago – in the midst of a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the economy – that it will “create 10k additional prison places” as “part of [its] £2.5bn plan”. The government has no incentive to tackle social issues at their core by addressing the role of inequality and marginalisation in crime – but it has plenty of incentive to maintain these systems of oppression, establishing million-pound contracts with private firms, such as Serco. Prisons have become wealth generators, with the government openly describing how its plans to build four new prisons will “help local economies”. The dangers of the proposed expansions to the criminal justice system under the Police Bill must not, therefore, be dismissed or overlooked.

An end to imprisonment does not mean zero accountability for crime, it means reconsidering the value we have historically placed on the notion of punishment.

In the US city of Baltimore, changes to the criminal justice system in the past year have challenged ingrained and archaic notions of justice. When the pandemic hit, the State’s Attorney announced that the city would no longer be prosecuting people for drug possession, prostitution, trespassing, and other minor charges in a bid to prevent overcrowding in prisons during the health crisis. Subsequently, since the city stopped prosecuting these minor and non-violent crimes, there has been an incredible knock-on effect on violent crime, which has plunged by 20% from last March.

While homicides spiralled in other big US cities during the pandemic, this has not been the case in Baltimore, despite 39% fewer people entering the city’s criminal justice system. This alone draws attention to just how ineffective punitive policies truly are. What we need are community-based solutions and greater funding for services that support people as opposed to criminalising them. An end to imprisonment does not mean zero accountability for crime, it means reconsidering the value we have historically placed on the notion of punishment. Increased police powers and tougher sentencing do not protect our communities; they simply punish those who have been consistently failed by the state.

Holly Barrow is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the UK and Ireland which provides free legal advice to asylum seekers and victims of domestic abuse

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