Public opinion against criminalising poverty
New data published today (30 November 2022) by Revolving Doors, the national charity working to break the cycle of crisis and crime, shows that 76% of UK adults think that rising levels of poverty will lead to an increase in crime. The majority (68%) think that rather than sending those who commit poverty-related crimes to prison, it would be better to address this financial hardship.
Polling also found that the majority (65%) think that the reason why most people commit non-violent, low-level crimes is due to poverty, mental health issues, and problems with drugs and alcohol. The majority (58%) also believe that alternatives to prison should be found in these cases.
The experience of poverty and prison
The report features an account by Paul (not his real name) who talks about his own experiences of ending up in prison because of a lack of enough money to live on and a lack of support with his mental health and alcohol problems:
“I’ve been through poverty-related theft. I stole a £1.50 bottle of alcohol; I went to jail for 3 weeks. As soon as I came back out, it made me rebel even more, I wasn’t in the right place. I was sent to prison three times for stealing booze when I was drunk, and my mental health was low. Did it help? Did it solve anything? No. What helped me was being diverted out of the criminal justice system and into mental health services. It was only then I found out that I had a mental health condition. My offending wasn’t driven by me being mischievous, but by my unmet mental health needs. I was self-medicating because I wasn’t aware of these needs, I didn’t understand what was going on.
“Prison makes it ten times worse because you go back to even more problems. Now, with the cost-of-living crisis, it’s going to be so much harder for people in that situation than it was for me back then. It will just create a vicious circle where you might end up losing your accommodation just for a £1.50 bottle of alcohol. Is it really worth it? And how much will it cost the public?”
The cost of living crisis
Revolving Doors’ findings coincide with predictions that living standards will drop by 7% as the cost-of-living crisis bites. This risks pushing even more people into poverty and therefore into contact with the criminal justice system – which the UK public do not believe should be punished with a prison sentence.
Even though there is clear public opposition to criminalising people who are committing low-level, non-violent crimes because they have multiple unmet needs, and despite a tightening of the public purse strings in the Autumn Budget, the government are still pushing ahead with a multi-billion pound plan to build 20,000 new prison places. Cheaper, more effective alternatives to prison exist – particularly for those who are serving short sentences. Community sentences cost, on average, just 10% of what it costs to imprison someone for a year and reoffending rates are significantly lower.
Revolving Doors is therefore calling for a total Rethink & Reset of how we approach criminal justice in the UK, calling for a ‘tough on the causes of crime’ stance rather than taking an entirely punitive approach to crime with a disproportionate reliance on prison, arguing that this is what the UK public want and what the public purse needs.
Pavan Dhaliwal, Chief Executive of Revolving Doors highlighted the key concerns at the launch of the polling results:
“As the cost-of-living crisis pushes more people into poverty and therefore into the revolving door of crisis and crime, we cannot continue to waste public money on short-term, ineffective solutions, as the root causes of low-level, non-violent crime go unaddressed.
“We can’t arrest our way out of poverty when people need access to treatment services and support. If we want to avoid immense harm, we need to rethink our entire approach to criminal justice. We agree with the UK public – we need to be tough on the causes of crime instead of imprisoning people who have no business being there in the first place.”
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.