Our so-called justice system exists to crack down on the misdemeanours of the poor, while ignoring the crimes committed by the rich. When Boris Johnson proposes a law-and-order clampdown – driven by cynical electioneering, rather than actual evidence – he’s talking about locking up the “people you step over in the street”, as Frances Crook, the CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform, puts it, not reckless bankers or white-collar fraudsters.
Lock ’em up, throw away the key: such demagoguery always has an innate emotional appeal, not least among a public enraged by increased violent crime, which is itself fuelled by a decade of slash-and-burn Tory economic policies. But further brutalising those already roughed up by a social order rigged in favour of yacht owners, financiers and the residents of Mayfair will satisfy the bloodlust of the Daily Mail and achieve little else.
The justice system has long been an instrument of class power. Under the “Bloody Code” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, death sentences for property crimes proliferated: stealing sheep, thieving from a shipwreck, or pickpocketing could all lead to the gallows. Today, we tend to lock up mentally ill poor people, disproportionately from minority backgrounds, for non-violent offences.
According to the Prison Reform Trust, more than seven in 10 prisoners report mental health issues, a quarter of inmates are from a minority ethnic group, and more than one in five with sentences of less than six months are homeless. Nearly seven out of 10 languishing behind bars are there for non-violent offences.
If the government truly wanted less crime, it would reverse the cuts to youth services – slashed in real terms by 40% in the last three years alone – which a recent parliamentary report found had led to increased knife crime. It would clamp down on school exclusions: these have surged by 50% since 2016, partly to enable schools to climb league tables, driving some of the abandoned children into crime. It would entirely reverse the real-terms cuts to schools and the gutting of sixth forms. It would properly support a mental health service which turns away more than 100,000 children every year. It would confront a housing crisis which has left a generation without security or roots, and deal decisively with a squeeze in living standards that has particularly hurt younger people.
But the Tory party has spent a near-decade forcing the majority to pay the bill for the economic wreckage caused by its City of London donors: it is the custodian of a social order that robs humans of security and dignity.
If prison is a deterrent, why are nearly half of adults convicted of another offence within a year of release? There are already more people in Britain serving a life sentence than in Germany, France and Italy combined – but has it left us safer? Why has a report by the National Audit Office found no link between prison population numbers and the level of crime in different countries?
We leave prisoners locked up in squalid conditions for up to 23 hours a day, instead of focusing on education, training, exercise, and other means of rehabilitation – as called for by the Howard League – so why are we surprised that prison becomes a school of crime? There are few places worse for someone with mental health issues than prisons, rife as they are with violence and drug abuse, and shocking rates of suicide and self-injury.
Chris Grayling’s part-privatisation of probation has had a disastrous impact – and Johnson’s plans will undoubtedly prove a boon to profiteers such as Serco, which was fined millions for using taxpayers’ money to fraudulently tag non-existent people, and a calamity for the rest of us.
If the government had sense, it would learn from Norway, which has shorter sentences, fewer prisoners, humane prisons and an emphasis on rehabilitation: there, just 20% of convicts reoffend within two years, among the world’s lowest rates. It would learn from Portugal in decriminalising drugs and treating them as a public health issue: the country has the lowest drug mortality rate in western Europe, drug use is below Europe’s average, and the number of those incarcerated for drug offences has more than halved. But in the UK, no such sense is to be found.
While the justice system is a stick for the poor, it offers an abundance of carrots for Britain’s rich. Iceland managed to lock up dozens of bankers and CEOs for crimes committed in the run-up to the 2008 financial crash – but not one senior banking executive has been jailed in Britain or the US for their roles in unleashing misery that millions continue to suffer from.
The tax system is riddled with loopholes available only to the rich and big corporations, depriving the exchequer of billions of pounds at a time when we’re constantly told there isn’t enough money for basic services. Meanwhile, benefit fraudsters are sentenced for appropriating far smaller sums. Since 2011, UK prosecutions for financial crimes – supposed “white collar crime” – have collapsed by 26%, even though the number of offences has quadrupled. Nearly a decade ago, one leading judge declared that the justice system has an inbuilt bias favouring the wealthy; since then, the decimation of legal aid has left it rigged even more in favour of the rich.
The law continues to crash down on the backs of the poor – while pandering to the rich.
Johnson is seeking to turn a national crisis that has been stoked by his own party’s actions into an electoral problem for his opponents – and he will be aided and abetted by the rightwing press. But he is merely upholding a centuries-old tradition of protecting a social order rigged in favour of his own class.
If you are rich and destroy the economy, engage in white collar fraud, snort cocaine – you’re still likely to live unimpeded in affluence, continuing to be invited to mingle with the not-so-great-and-good of society. But if you are a black teenager in Hackney found in possession of cannabis by the police, your whole life could crash down around you. Whatever this is – it’s certainly not justice.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist