Why don’t we just…
rip up our criminal justice
system and start again?

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I recently recorded the audio version of my new book Justice on Trial.

In it, I argue for a complete and radical overhaul of our broken criminal justice system. Chapters include “Why we should close all prisons”, “Why we should legalise drugs”, “Why children are never criminals”, and “Why people are not good or evil”.

During a break in the recording, my producer asked me: “Do you not get frustrated that the system is getting it completely wrong and nobody is doing anything about it?”

I thought about why those of us inside the system largely accept it for what it is, unquestioningly, despite the catastrophic outcomes for all involved, not only for defendants but for victims too – in fact, for everyone.

I answered: “I spent the first 20 years of my life in the law with my head down, just getting on with the job of defending my clients and trying to get the best results possible within the system. And I think that is how everyone in the system works. They have a job to do and they do it. We do not ask the bigger question – what is the point of it all?”

This head down approach is probably no different to the way people work in many other walks of life: banking, accountancy, retail or leisure. On the whole, we accept that the basic structures, which have been there a
long time, must be sound.

In the case of criminal justice, we could not be more wrong in such complacency. The system is utterly broken, unfit for purpose and largely achieves the precise opposite outcomes from those for which – presumably – it is intended. From the criminalisation of children as young as 10 to the persecution of drug users and the futile war on drugs and the grossly excessive use of imprisonment as punishment – mostly for non-violent crimes – every part of the system is flawed and counterproductive.

I spent more than a year researching criminal justice policies around the world, from the bleak misery of Alabama’s penal system to the humanity of Geneva’s heroin assisted treatment programme. I looked back in time to the first humans to use plants for their psychoactive properties (many millions of years ago). I reflected on my 26 years at the coalface of criminal justice, defending in countless trials of murder, drug trafficking and fraud.

What if we did not have to carry on making the same mistakes of the past? What if there was a way to finally make things better and even to save some money along the way? As Justice on Trial came together so too did my conviction strengthen: there is indeed another way to do things.

Spending money on drug enforcement, criminalising children and prisons is a waste. The radical solutions set out in Justice on Trial must surely be perfect for the post Covid-19 world, where the government will need to find value for money wherever it can.

By removing children from the criminal justice system, and adopting a welfare and education model, countless young people would be taken off the crime and punishment merry-go-round for good, saving hundreds of millions of pounds a year – not to mention the reduction in all that human potential and dignity, flushed away each year.

By legalising and licensing drugs, we would dramatically reduce crime, allow users to obtain safe supplies and access to rehab and medical care, and even see some positive revenue from taxation of cannabis and some other drugs. It really is a win-win.

And by shutting down and selling off the outdated and inhumane prison estate, reserving a new form of custody only for the most violent and dangerous offenders, and focusing everything on rehabilitation, we would save billions a year, reduce crime (prisons lead to the most reoffending of all) and end the futile “in and out” cycle that institutionalise so many for life.

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it really is.

Chris Daw QC is a barrister, broadcaster and the author of Justice on Trial (Bloomsbury)

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