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By Alex Firth, Research and Communications Officer

This article was written for Rethink & Reset, a campaign by the national criminal justice charity Revolving Doors. Rethink & Reset calls for a complete overhaul of our criminal justice system and explores innovative, humane and cost-effective approaches to the cycle of crisis and crime.

In Britain today, there is an increasing sense that things have broken down. Poverty rates have remained persistently high for several years, and it is not an exaggeration to say people are struggling to survive. The situation has been accelerated by the cost-of-living crisis with historically high inflation meaning prices have shot up, hitting poorer households the hardest. With society fraying at the edges, many people are at risk of being pushed into desperate situations – it is time we pivoted away from trying to police poverty to instead look for a human rights based solution.

This winter, 7.2 million low-income households have gone without essentials – lacking food, blankets, clothing, toiletries, and sanitary products. Falling into poverty, which can often fuel mental health problems, means more and more people are at risk of falling into the world of crime. The crushing weight of poverty puts them at risk of becoming a part of our broken criminal justice system and getting caught in a vicious cycle of crisis and crime.

According to data from 2022, Britain has the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe. On average, we put more people in cages than any of our neighbours, with the prison population having risen by 70% in the last 30 years. This increasingly includes sentences for low level and non-violent crimes. It is not a coincidence that these historically high imprisonment rates coincide with the UK’s exceptionally high poverty rates and one of the highest levels of income inequality in Europe, second only to Italy.

If crime is partly a symptom of poverty and inequality, then it makes no sense to address the problem as we are currently attempting to. You cannot arrest people out of poverty. We need to instead think about radically rethinking our criminal justice system and instead look for positive and proactive solutions to the issue that seeks to address the root causes. One lasting way of doing this would be through better human rights protections.

We believe we specifically need our economic, social and cultural rights protected in domestic law. This includes the right to food, housing, social security, work, health, and education – our everyday human rights – all components which would help bring down both poverty and crime if they were better protected.

One example is to look at the right to education and the importance of early intervention in keeping young people away from crime. If our right to education was enshrined in domestic law it would strengthen our education system, whether it was keeping kids in schools, or ensuring that the education is good quality and well-resourced.

The issue of poverty comes into play with things like the digital divide – where children from poorer backgrounds do not have the same access to devices and Wi-Fi necessary for learning. An enshrined right to education could mean that issues such as this were at the forefront of government planning, to prevent certain children missing out. Another area would be school exclusions, which are a major issue since children taken out of mainstream education are more vulnerable to becoming the victim of childhood criminal exploitation. Enshrining the right to education would ensure that no child loses access to learning.

The United Kingdom ratified these rights at the international level back in 1976 but never incorporated them into our domestic legislation meaning you cannot take the UK Government to court over their failures to uphold them.

If they were enshrined in law, then these rights would be transformed into objective standards that must be met. We wouldn’t have to speculate whether the UK Government will act to ensure people have enough to eat, had proper mental health support, or access to any of our other rights: they would have to.

This act of enshrining our everyday human rights into domestic law would benefit society in a significant number of ways, including being a real criminal justice revolution. Instead of pouring millions of pounds into the prison system, we should be advocating instead for that money to be spent on removing the conditions that contribute to the causes of crime in the first place and investing in our communities by creating a robust rights-based safety net.

Background image by David Jon Walker