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Find our work on sentencing, police custody, domestic abuse, justice reinvestment, and more

Our small size allows us to be flexible in the work we take on, and we are always open to exploring issues beyond our main focus areas. Below you will find previous and ongoing work on topics that don’t fit neatly under our current focus areas, including:

  • Sentencing
  • Localising justice
  • Police custody
  • Domestic abuse
  • Quality of defence
  • The judiciary


All those convicted of crimes in England and Wales are sentenced to pay a fine, complete a community or prison sentence, or receive an absolute/conditional discharge. The framework for sentencing is primary legislation but that framework is pretty broad. The sentences meted out by judges and magistrates are guided by case law (previous cases) and by sentencing guidelines. Sentencing guidelines are issued by the Sentencing Council which was set up in 2010 to produce greater consistency in sentencing. Rob Allen argues in two reports for Transform Justice that the Council may have achieved consistency but at the cost of fuelling sentence inflation.

Sentences for many crime types have increased steadily despite no changes to primary legislation. No one knows quite why this is occurring but in some cases a spike in the punitiveness of sentences can be seen immediately following the issuing of new guidelines. Rob Allen suggests significant reforms to the Sentencing Council including a review of the membership (which is dominated by the judiciary) and a recommendation that the Council should “conduct a dispassionate overview of the whole range of sentence levels with a view to reducing the unnecessary and ineffective use of imprisonment”.

Localising justice

How can we reduce offending when the most effective means of doing so lie outside the remit of the justice system? People who commit crime need stable housing, good family relationships, employment and good healthcare to turn their lives around. Yet there are few incentives for health, housing and employment services to prioritise the needs of people in the criminal justice system. In fact, in many cases they go to the back of the queue. Meanwhile millions are spent on court costs, police enforcement and prisons.

The government’s Levelling Up agenda has renewed conversations about devolving more power and funding for various public services. And yet criminal justice power and funding remain centralised and siloed. This does not serve the needs of local communities.

Justice reinvestment is a mechanism for incentivising all local services to help people turn their back on crime. It involves reform of the way criminal justice is paid for, to reward those involved in reducing offending and supporting rehabilitation. It also means devolution of responsibility for criminal justice to a more local level where all relevant local agencies can work together to devise the most appropriate approaches to reducing crime.

Police custody

Police custody is, above all, a place of secure confinement. Being deprived of your liberty in a police cell is a frightening and upsetting experience. People who’ve been there have described it as the most stressful time in their life –more stressful than prison, even. But it’s also a hidden world to which few outsiders have access. Lawyers and volunteers go in and out, but its use is never sufficiently questioned. Some adults do need to be detained in custody before, and sometimes after, charge but our research suggests that police cells contain many vulnerable individuals who could be released without unduly risking public protection.

Transform Justice’s report on adults in police custody finds scrutiny and challenge lacking at three key points: the initial decision to detain, the decision to continue detention, and the decision to detain post-charge. By shining a light on these decisions, the 140,000 adults detained in custody each year could be significantly reduced without impeding the ability of the police to investigate crime and protect alleged victims.

Domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is a scourge on our society. 1.7 million women and 699,000 men were abused y/e March 2022. The numbers of domestic abuse victims recorded by the crime survey of England and Wales has actually gone down over the last ten years but reports to the police have gone up considerably. Domestic abuse includes violence between girlfriend and boyfriend but also a teenager stealing from his mother’s purse. Everyone wants to reduce abuse but the ability of the criminal justice system to do so is contested. Domestic abuse campaigners advocate for more reporting of incidents to the police, more arrests of those suspected, more prosecutions and harsher criminal sanctions.

But the evidence challenges the power of the criminal justice system to make a difference to domestic abuse. A meta analysis of the effect of criminal sanctions on reoffending concluded that most criminal sanctions made no difference to incidence of abuse and those who were sentenced to prison were likely to commit more serious abuse on release. So it looks as if criminal sanctions should be used to punish and protect victims but not relied on to change behaviour. In England and Wales however, there is some promising evidence for the effectiveness of Cara, a programme offered to people who accept a conditional caution rather than be prosecuted. Transform Justice published a report on the role of the criminal justice system in reducing abuse and has since published a number of articles.

Quality of defence

Criminal defence lawyers are crucial to protect the fair trial rights of suspects and defendants. Many people in the criminal justice system are not aware of their rights and do not understand what they mean – the language is technical and the situation is stressful. Without a lawyer, it’s difficult for someone to participate effectively in the criminal justice process.

But there are serious shortcomings in the provision and quality criminal defence services. In theory lawyers should be incentivised to do a good job so that clients continue to use them and recommend them to friends. But our research suggests that this doesn’t happen in practice. Defendants rarely have the necessary information at hand to judge the quality of their defence, it’s difficult to switch lawyer if you’re unhappy, and complaints and quality assurance mechanisms are poor. Our report calls for better regulation, fee structure reform and the introduction of alternative business models so that all those charged with crimes have their rights upheld and can effectively participate in the criminal process.

The judiciary

England and Wales has an unusual mix of “lay” and professional judges. Paid judges preside over all civil courts and Crown Courts, whereas a mix of lay and professional judges preside over magistrates’ courts and tribunals. Lay magistrates preside over most criminal hearings. Almost any adult can apply to become a magistrate, and a minority of those who apply are selected by Advisory Committees, having met “suitability to judge” criteria. Lay magistrates and the judiciary as a whole are criticised for their lack of diversity of race, class, age and gender. Lay magistrates are supposed to be “representatives of the people” but they are older, whiter and more middle class than the rest of the population.

In a recent recruitment push the government attempted to recruit more diverse new magistrates but it is not yet clear whether they succeeded. Transform Justice has campaigned for a more representative magistracy and for better training and development for magistrates. Lay magistrates can remand people in prison custody and sentence someone to a one year prison sentence. New magistrates take part in that decision (magistrates sit on benches of two or three) after just two days training. In reports and responses to consultations Transform Justice has proposed radical reform of the magistracy and a restriction of their sentencing powers. We have also questioned the lack of openness of the judiciary and the magistracy.