In this post DPhil candidate Jenna Milani reviews the Centre for Criminology’s 50th Anniversary Conference Panel ‘Criminal Justice in an Age of Austerity’, chaired by Alan Rusbridger and discussed by Dame Elish Angiolini QC, Sarah Thornton CBE QPM, Dr Rick Muir, and Dominic Grieve QC MP. The event was held on Saturday, 4 June 2016 at Andrew Wiles Building as part of the 50th Anniversary Summer Conference ‘Contemporary Dilemmas in Criminal Justice’.

In the final panel of the Centre for Criminology’s 50th Anniversary Conference, entitled ‘Criminal Justice in an Age of Austerity’, panel host Alan Rusbridger introduced the discussion by asking panelists how criminal justice priorities, human rights principles, and public interests can be squared in a fiscally restrained climate. Does austerity mean a diminution of individual rights and liberties as resources and priorities are practically challenged, or should it be regarded as an opportunity to reassess and reorient the aims and (achievable) objectives of the criminal justice system?

Drawing on Professor Ian Loader’s introduction, panelists Dame Elish Angiolini QC, Sarah Thornton CBE QPM, Dr Rick Muir, and Dominic Grieve QC MP offered an array of ideas which chimed with the tenor of the entire conference. Themes of globalization, changing borders, mass migration, and their wide-ranging effects on crime and its control became the focal point of the discussion. In particular, panelists highlighted how a justice system built on the tough-on-crime sensibilities of 20 years ago can no longer adequately cope with the changing contours of criminal justice – a fact no more evident than in the issue of austerity.

Indeed, in his introduction, Professor Loader observed that the traditional law-and-order sensibility which characterized much of the penal and policy landscape of the past 20 years is no longer fiscally or affectively viable. The financial crisis of 2008, coupled with falling crime rates, has meant that crime is no longer the hot-button political issue it once was and that people are often skeptical, even reluctant about criminal justice spending. In today’s world, crime has become both global – encapsulating cybercrime, terrorism, and drug- and sex-trafficking – as well as private – including everything from domestic violence and child sexual offenses, to internet fraud. A criminal justice apparatus which focuses predominantly on a single jurisdiction or public space, will be poorly equipped to cope with decidedly 21st century criminal behavior and victimization – particularly in light of increasing budget cuts.

As Sarah Thornton argued, these more multifaceted patterns of criminal offending and victimization – such as counterterrorism, drug offenses, and sexual assault – place exceptional demand on the system in terms of vulnerability, complexity, and level of harm. And as Rick Muir emphasized the volumetric drop in crime should not be conflated with a drop in all respects, as the most vulnerable are still disproportionately affected by crime and Internet fraud and other cybercrimes are actually increasing. To this end, Dame Elish Angiolini emphasized the need for specialist training for police, judges, and other criminal justice agents with an eye towards vulnerability and complexity.

Furthermore, Dame Elish Angiolini emphasized the need for criminal justice spending to be used more efficiently and humanely. She suggested alternative adjudication programs, like drug and mental health treatment courts, alternatives to custody, such as women’s health centers, or diversion from prosecution at the outset. She argued that criminal investigation cannot be as crude and polemic as it was 20 years ago, but that the sophistication in offending demanded an equal sophistication in response – i.e., demanding “500 officers on the street” may do little in the way of stymieing cybercrime.

Alluding to the “Right on Crime” movement in the USA, many of the speakers highlighted the paradoxical opportunity presented by austerity. Indeed, in spite of the financial cutbacks and scarcity of resources placed on an already strained system, austerity may force us to recalibrate both the priorities and principles underpinning the criminal justice system.

As Dominic Grieve argued, we spend far too much with far too marginal a result not to ask ourselves “what’s the point?” Though, as David Rose cautioned in the question-and-answer session, such a Spartan, output-oriented understanding may provide fertile ground for miscarriages of justice.

The panelists concluded the discussion by encouraging us to use the current political climate as an occasion to reassess the purposes and priorities of the criminal justice system, as well as an opportunity to engage with other agencies and practitioners – from doctors and crisis-management professionals, to members of the community and victims themselves – to better understand what these priorities are, and how they can best be served.