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Why people don’t care how much the criminal justice system costs

Penelope Gibbs
29 Jul 2016

The criminal justice system in England and Wales costs a lot – at least £18 billion a year.  So you would have thought people would be interested in saving money in the system.  Campaigners in criminal justice have long advocated for less use of prison on the basis that it is expensive – c £40,000 per person per year.  Why pay so much, we say, when alternatives to prison are so much cheaper and more effective? We have not succeeded in reducing the prison population through this argument.  In fact the government have saved money on prisons simply by cutting staff, making conditions far worse.

So why have campaigners sensible arguments fallen on stony ground?  Simply because people don’t care about saving money when it comes to their own safety, or don’t think its relevant.  The FrameWorks Institute have done research (published here 2nd August) which compares the effectiveness of different values in inspiring support for progressive criminal justice reforms focusing more on the prevention of crime and less on punishment.  When the researchers posited that fewer people should be punished because it would save money, the public were less supportive of the reform – so promoting a reform because it saved money actually reduced people’s support for it.

Its not clear quite why people don’t seem to care about saving money on criminal justice.  The FrameWorks Institute think it may be because people don’t think you can put a price on safety: “Our research shows that people place great importance on personal and community safety and
are unwilling to think about it in financial terms. This contrasts with other social issues, such as mental
health, education or the environment”.  And a reminder of another issue where cost effectiveness bombed?  Brexit.  In the debate on Brexit, the Leave value “take back control”, won hands down over the attempt to persuade people that membership of the EU was cost effective.

So we know what not to say, but what to say instead? One of the values which worked much better was pragmatism:

“We need to use a commonsense, step-by-step approach to solving problems and improving
our criminal justice system. This means clarifying goals and establishing a set of tasks that
we want the system to do, and then creating a criminal justice system that is aligned with
these goals. If we focus our attention on creating a step-by-step plan for solving problems,
we can decrease crime and improve public safety”.

This value increased support for progressive reform and detracted from the fatalism that dominates so much communication about criminal justice (yes mine too).  So if you are trying to persuade anyone that our criminal system needs changing try using the argument that it makes pragmatic sense.