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Criminal justice

The General Election: what do we want for criminal justice?

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In the run up to the general election taking place on the 4th July, Catch22 will publish its “election series” of blogs, overviewing what we hope to see across the sectors in which we deliver vital services. Miranda Shanks, Policy and Communications Manager, talks about why Catch22 wants prospective parties to take a rehabilitative approach when it comes to criminal justice policy.

In our manifesto we are calling for parties to commit to reform the Criminal Justice System (CJS) by using rehabilitative alternatives to punitive approaches. Indeed, there is growing evidence that investment in strong rehabilitative services, that start even upstream of custody, reduces reoffending – which currently costs the UK £18bn a year.

Why will the Criminal Justice System be an election battleground?

Where political party leaders land on the “tough on crime” spectrum can simultaneously win over and alienate different voter demographics. We’ve often seen the “tough on crime” debate to be divisive even within parties themselves. Indeed, public attitudes show that crime and justice is in the top five voter considerations.

This year, more than ever, the criminal justice system is in an unprecedented state, with both court backlogs and prison capacity at record highs. When the election was called there were several crime and justice related bills, aimed to tackle some of these issues, part-way through the legislative process, indicating priorities once on the Government’s agenda. The forthcoming policy pledges designed to fix these issues, therefore, will be paramount for all political parties.

What will be some of the big issues?

1. Prison capacity crisis

Last week, the population stood at 87,000, representing 98% capacity. We are living through the greatest capacity crisis in history – supporting a population that has grown by 30% in the last 30 years. Exceptional pressure on prison space poses several risks to the prison estate: poor living conditions, reduced access to rehabilitative programs, stretched staff teams and compromised safety.

A staggering 63% of those on a short sentence of 12 months or less go on to reoffend, which currently costs the UK £18bn a year, and many thousands are recalled back into custody for minor breaches not involving an offence, indicative of a prison system which creates a revolving door of offenders instead of one that achieves desistance.

In terms of public opinion, fewer than 10% of people surveyed said that having more people in prison was the most effective way to deal with crime – and instead favoured responses such as early intervention, better parenting, discipline in schools, and better rehabilitation.

2. Court backlogs

At present, there are 67,000 cases waiting to be heard by the courts. The backlog was reportedly triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic but has since been exacerbated by falling numbers of criminal barristers.

A functioning and timely justice system is integral to a public perception of law and order. Not only are delays in court proceedings perceived as an erosion of a safe and fair course of justice (particularly for victims who are more likely to withdraw from the process as waiting times increase, leading to the collapse of cases) they are also staggeringly expensive. Accused individuals awaiting trial and held in custody on remand are one of the key contributors to the prison capacity crisis, and a significant cost to the public purse. The significant court delays are therefore an issue that speaks both to the integrity of our justice system as well as the use of public spending.

3. The probation service

The probation service, who manage all sentenced offenders in the community, has faced significant challenges since its reunification in 2021. Between 2021 to 2023, of 36 Probation Delivery Units (PDUs) inspected, only one was rated as good. Contributing to such challenges is the difficulty of recruiting and retaining staff into the probation service. While record investment is plugging the staffing gaps, as of March 2024, there is a reported net decrease of probation officers in post.

We’re also seeing an increase in risk-aversion amongst the probation service, who are increasingly using recall as a tool to deal with non-compliance and license breaches (rather than facing a further charges). In fact, quarterly statistics show that the number of recalls made between January-March 2023 is 23% higher than in 2022. Frequently, recall is used because there is a lack of rehabilitative alternative, or the support systems to facilitate desistance, such as stable accommodation, were never put in place. Rising recall numbers are, too, fueling the fire that is our overflowing prison estate.

At Catch22, we believe that taking a rehabilitative approach can go some way towards addressing many of the system’s greatest challenges. Some of the ways of building a more rehabilitative and restorative CJS involve:

  • Prioritising alternatives to Fixed Term Recalls (FTR): Fixed Term Recalls (FTRs) often result in offenders being returned to custody for two- or four-weeks for relatively minor breaches of their license conditions. This approach can undermine rehabilitation efforts and hinder reintegration into society. In fact, we see that such a short stint in custody, particularly with prisons operating at capacity, doesn’t give individuals long enough to do any meaningful resettlement work. By focusing on rehabilitation rather than punitive measures, we can support offenders to address the root causes of their behaviour, ultimately reducing rates of desistance and easing the burden on the prison system.
  • Widening access to Restorative Justice (RJ): Restorative Justice (RJ) offers a powerful means for both victims and offenders to engage in a dialogue that can lead to recovery and reconciliation. However, access to restorative justice services is currently limited and a postcode lottery. Catch22 proposes that access to a restorative justice service should be included as a right within the Victims’ Code. This would ensure that all victims are aware of, informed about and able to participate in restorative justice processes if deemed suitable by a trained restorative justice practitioner. Expanding restorative justice can lead to better outcomes for victims, who often feel more satisfied with the justice process, and for offenders, who are given an opportunity to understand the impact of their actions and make amends. In fact, restorative justice has been seen to reduce reoffending by 14%, again supporting a reduction in prison numbers.


Prioritising long-term rehabilitative approaches will allow the next Government to take significant steps towards a fairer and more effective criminal justice system, one which uses custody only when necessary and all other alternatives have been considered.

Catch22 stands ready to support these initiatives and looks forward to working with the incoming Parliament to implement crucial reforms.