The case for change

Rewiring our system of punishment and rehabilitation

Twenty five years ago, Tony Blair announced the new Labour criminal justice policy: ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. It was a classic piece of triangulation that included the competing punitive and liberal approaches to dealing with crime and offenders that have long characterised criminal justice reform.

Despite a plethora of reforms and changes to the justice system over the last quarter of a century by successive governments, the system is arguably neither ‘tough on crime’ nor on its ‘causes’. That is the conclusion of the first part of a Crest research project funded by the Hadley Trust looking at our current system of punishment and rehabilitation, analysing each component of the system and the extent to which it meets its objectives.

Recorded crime vs Prison population in England and Wales 1990 – 2017:

Chart 1 - Rewiring Reforms

Key findings

Our justice system is facing very different challenges to twenty five years ago. Crime is more harmful, offenders are more prolific and there is less money available.

But unlike other public services, the justice system has failed to adapt to these emerging challenges. Despite decades of change, many of the assumptions underpinning how justice is delivered have remained unchanged, resulting in too little punishment in the community and too little rehabilitation in prison. As our report sets out, failures remain across the system:

  • Low level offending is tolerated, rather than challenged;
  • Punishment within the community is virtually non-existent – meaning prisons are over-utilised;
  • Prisons and probation are over-stretched and lack the levers to address the social causes of crime, meaning rehabilitation is neglected.

Rewiring Lessons

Insufficient reforms, based on outdated assumptions about how to change offenders’ behaviour, underpin these failures through the ‘offender journey’ by:

  • Prioritising processes over relationships
  • Treating offenders as a homogeneous, rather than diverse group
  • Favouring the ‘rolling out’ of off-the-shelf solutions over innovation
  • Failing to address root causes

The criminal justice system has given up on transforming lives, in favour of processing people through the system.


Next steps

This is the interim report for this piece of work. The stale debate between those in favour of a more liberal/welfare-oriented justice system (focused on rehabilitation) and those in favour of a more punitive system (emphasising punishment) that has characterised justice for decades needs rethinking. Our current system delivers neither. A lack of credible community alternatives means prison remains the only ‘real’ punishment. And although prisons and probation are accountable for rehabilitation, they lack the levers to do the job properly.

We need a new model for justice, which balances punishment and rehabilitation. The solution is not to prioritise punishment or rehabilitation – but to combine both. Over the coming months our aim is to systematically re-think the entire purpose of the system, and design a system fit for the modern challenges we face.

Our principles going forward are:

  • Devolving power to shift money upstream
  • Integrating services
  • Deepening relationships


Watch this space for the final report later this year.

Report authors:

Jon Clements

Jon Clements

Director of Development

Jon Clements draws on nearly two decades experience in public affairs, the media and criminal justice to ensure Crest offers clients the support they need to achieve their goals. A former national newspaper and broadcast journalist, Jon leads on Crest’s positioning and oversees the development of new business and marketing.

Faerlie Wilson

Faerlie Wilson

Senior Analyst

Faerlie Wilson is a Senior Analyst at Crest. Before joining Crest, Faerlie taught strategy, policy, and critical analysis to senior military officers from the UK and abroad. She has lived and worked in the Middle East, Europe, and North America, and brings a global perspective to her work at Crest.

Sophie du Mont

Sophie du Mont

Strategy and Insight Manager

Sophie du Mont is Strategy and Insight Manager at Crest Advisory. She analyses and evaluates statistics and existing policies affecting the criminal justice system.

Manon Roberts

Manon Roberts

Policy & Research Analyst

Manon Roberts is a Policy & Research Analyst at Crest. Previous prison-based experience in family work and substance misuse means Manon has seen first-hand the effects of criminal justice policy reforms on service users and their families. She is passionate about engaging service users and gaining their perspectives to inform recommendations for positive change.

If you'd like to discuss our conclusions or learn more about how we could help your organisation


Find out more about