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Can we arrest ourselves out of poverty?

A blog by Mark Blake, Criminal Justice Alliance Policy Manager

What does a seemingly never-ending cost of living crisis mean for the poorest and most insecure in our society? How is it impacting on our criminal justice system? What could the government be doing about it?

There has always been a significant intersection between poverty and crime. Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) members will know that more than most. But perhaps never more so than at this point, with a cost-of-living crisis visibly depreciating people’s spending power and choices in a manner never seen since the 1970s (a time when many reading this blog were possibly not even born). The rise in shoplifting has generated a constant swirl of media coverage over recent months, but little in terms of any thoughts around solutions or preventative measures (apart from security tagging butter and getting the police to prioritise it).

Poverty has always been a constant factor regarding how society views and deals with crime, shaping perceptions, stereotypes, and policy responses. Inequality, though related to poverty isn’t the same thing, has grown sharply over the past 20 years (the adage that the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer is statistically true). An interesting observation over the same timeframe has been the near doubling of the prison population. While this might not be cause and effect, it is not coincidental. Put it this way, try finding a nation where inequality has narrowed, and the prison population has risen. All the literature on economic inequality points to societies that are more equal do better on key societal indicators such as crime rates.

As the cost-of-living crisis increases, shoplifting is likely to become more prevalent. Moreover, this crisis may alter the demographic of those who engage in shoplifting. Although energy prices are predicted to fall the impacts of this crisis are unlikely to recede. What do you do: pay the rent or feed your kids?

What is clear is that an enforcement/custodial-led approach is not only going to be ineffective but is clearly a non-starter as our prison system is bursting at the seams, with the government seeking solutions such as renting prison space abroad.

At the CJA’s academic symposium in March last year, Professor Nick Hardwick from Royal Holloway, University of London gave a presentation leaning on his years as HM Inspector of Prisons. He predicted an ongoing crisis for the government and prison service that were heading towards a cliff edge regarding prison capacity, despite their own data and projections setting this trajectory. With the MoJ’s own prison population projections estimating a prison population in excess of 106,000 in 2027, even if the government could build its additional 20,000 prison places from its £4 billion estimated prison building programme (we should note the £4 billion estimate is likely to rise as we are in a cost-of-living crisis) within the next four years that probably wouldn’t be enough to address a seemingly insatiable growing demand. However, there appears to be no appetite across the government and the opposition to look at alternatives to increasing levels of custody, as both parties are committed to the prison-building programme and the intrinsic belief that rising rates of incarceration make society safer.

So, clearly, arresting our way out of this crisis is not the solution.

CJA members are at the frontline across the criminal justice system, supporting a range of people and communities to successfully exit the system, to access justice, and diverting many away from it in the first place. We’d like to propose the following questions to those working in criminal justice:

  • What have you seen over the past 2-3 years from the pandemic to a cost-of-living crisis?
  • How has the cost-of-living crisis impacted the people and communities you work with?
  • What are the practical and policy solutions to this that can effectively help the people and communities you work with?

We invite you to contact Policy Manager Mark Blake at, and encourage you to share case studies and personal experiences that can inform and guide our collective efforts in this area.