Leanne Wood argues that the devolution of criminal justice offers an opportunity to do things differently
The ‘England and Wales’ criminal justice system is failing our communities and does not work for Wales.
We need change – and full power and responsibility over criminal justice to create a fairer system to the benefit of all our communities.
Recent research from the Wales Governance Centre showed that Wales has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe.
Women are more likely to receive an immediate custodial sentence than men. Imprisonment rates among BAME communities are more disproportionate relative to the population in Wales than in England and Black, Asian and minority ethnic people have the highest average sentence length – therefore if you are a person of colour in Wales, you are both more likely to be imprisoned and receive a longer sentence. White people however, are underrepresented.
Looking at rates of imprisonment across Wales, we also know that Wales’s most deprived communities have higher rates of incarceration. There is a clear link between poverty and crime, and the treatment of working-class offenders by the courts.
Inequality is built into the heart of our justice system – whether that’s racial, gender, class or geographic inequality, and this is no accident.
A privatised probation service and lack of confidence from the courts in community based responses, coupled with austerity-driven cuts to legal aid and not being able to access justice has resulted in more people in Wales being sentenced directly to prison – with a clear link between the privatisation of the probation service, the pursuit of profit and poor performance in supervision and monitoring.
While community based solutions have been gutted by successive governments they have handed over more and more of the justice system into private hands, with prisons being run for profit by private companies, such as G4S, who have been linked to serious human rights abuses.
Previous research conducted by the Centre has also shown widespread safety and wellbeing issues in Wales’s prisons, including increasing rates of substance misuse, self-harm, violence and suicide.
In 2017 there were 2,132 self-harm incidents in prisons in Wales. This figure equates to five separate incidents of self-harm taking place in Welsh prisons every day. On average, a prisoner in Wales takes their own life every four months.
Our prisons are overcrowded, unsafe and unfit to meet the needs of a modern justice system.
The truth is that prison doesn’t work. Not if our aim is to create a just, fair and safe society.
In many years of having worked as a probation officer, and working on issues around justice in the Senedd, I believe that we have seen a shift in public opinion.
People can see that our current system doesn’t work.
Many people will have had experience themselves of prison, or the effect that it has on their families. Many will have seen others get criminal records for non-violent drug offences that harm their future prospects. Many will see that people in their community are disproportionately impacted by harsher sentencing and the vicious cycle of reoffending associated with it.
People know that our communities won’t be safer because we lock non-violent offenders up in unsafe, overcrowded, outdated prisons. People know that gutting the probation service and selling it off has not helped people get their lives back on track and people know that building more super prisons and putting more profit in private hands from our justice system does not give us a sound basis for a fairer society or economy.
We could do things differently, and full devolution of the criminal justice system would allow us to do so.
We could create a Welsh criminal justice system focused on establishing problem-solving justice initiatives that seek to tackle the root causes of offending at an early stage and focus on prevention, rather than retribution after the crime has been committed.
Probation services could be brought back under public control alongside establishing a rehabilitative prison system with a specific focus on assisting people and helping them to break the vicious cycle of reoffending through well-resourced community based courses and initiatives.
Community sentencing and rehabilitation are key to reducing reoffending and addressing the underlying causes of offending, thereby ensuring ex-offenders are able to properly resettle back into their communities. By freeing up resources we could invest in public sector community rehabilitation, and change sentencing policy to emphasise more community-based rehabilitation.
In particular, custodial sentences would only be used for women and young people in the most exceptional circumstances.
Our current focus on punishing people gets us nowhere, leading only to more families being torn apart, cycles of reoffending, substance misuse, unemployment, homelessness and mental health issues.
Focusing on full rehabilitation, restorative justice approaches, and trauma-informed work with offenders will help us create safer communities.
This is why Plaid Cymru is also in favour of giving prisoners the right to vote, in the interests of human rights and rehabilitation because disenfranchising an entire section of the population in this way cannot be justified in a modern democracy.
We could also look at wider opportunities to decriminalise activity that doesn’t cause harm to our communities.
For example, the decriminalisation of drugs, and treating substance misuse as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue, would reduce the dangers associated with drug use and ensure that resources aren’t wasted on prosecuting people for minor, non-violent offences such as possession of drugs or shoplifting to feed the family.
Communities in Wales face a range of challenges – endemic poverty, public health problems and a lack of opportunities and prisons and punishment are not the answers to these problems. We need transformative justice to look at the whole system – not just how the crime happened, but the wider social, economic and environmental factors behind it.
When an offense is committed, we should use opportunities to educate, rehabilitate and re-build relationships between the offender, the victim and the wider community. This is the approach I believe we should take in Wales – to lead the way in tackling the real problems faced by our communities and delivering safety, rights and justice for all.
Let’s demand the tools to do things ourselves and build a better system and achieve our vision.
Full power and responsibility for criminal justice would enable us to build our own system in Wales that fits the needs of our citizens. So, rather than topping the league table for imprisonment, Wales could create a fairer, transformative system that would be a beacon for justice around the world.
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