Frances Crook believes ‘politicians are still stuck in the 1950s’ when it comes to our criminal justice system. For 35 years, she has been at the helm of the Howard League for Penal Reform, trying to innovate and change the UK’s approach. Her time in charge is, this month, coming to an end. She joins Calum McCrae in the latest episode of the Justice Gap Podcast, to look back at her time with the group, the state of the penal system in the UK and her hopes for the future.
‘The criminal justice system never makes things better, ever. Less is better is my motto’. It’s a motto that has been a driving force for Frances Crook since taking charge of the Howard League for Penal Reform in 1986. Prior to that, she was a secondary school teacher and was twice elected as a Labour Councillor for East Finchley in the London Borough of Barnet.
The Howard League has three aims: Less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. Crook proudly explains that over her time in charge, the charity has contributed to keeping children out of the criminal justice system. But more, not fewer, people are in prison now. ‘When I first started, we were worried about it going up to 50,000. It’s now 78,000,’ she says. ‘But I blame successive Governments for that.’
It’s been a difficult period to champion the causes Frances Crook and the Howard League does. This and previous governments seemingly committed to enacting policies that run counter to her ideals.
‘Everytime you look around, there’s a piece of legislation that makes prison sentences longer,’ Crook tells McCrae. ‘There’s no rationale for it. There’s no evidence that sending someone to prison for 25 years, instead of 22 is going to make anybody safer.’ On plans to build more prison cells, she said: ‘The Government’s press release is saying “this is going to create jobs”. Well, I can think of better ways to spend £200 million’.
And it’s not just prison spaces and sentences that concern Frances Crook. The very purpose of prison needs a radical rethink, she suggests: ‘You need to create a community, with trust and activity and purpose. It is possible to do things differently.’
Later this month Frances Crook will leave her post as chief exec to be replaced by Andrea Coomber, currently director of the charity JUSTICE.
Listen to the whole conversation above or wherever you download your podcasts.