The madness of the criminal justice system (linkedin)

The criminal justice system (CJS) is broken. Not many would disagree with this; some say it’s too lenient, some think it’s too harsh, and others believe it is much more complicated than that. I am in the third group, and this is because I have seen both sides. As a person with lived experience, I would like to give my take on why the system, as it stands, is unjust and not fit for purpose. But first, a little background…

At the age of eighteen, I chased an abusive boyfriend into the street with a kitchen knife. After months of physical and psychological abuse, I finally snapped. I was charged with possession of an offensive weapon and given a conditional discharge. Thirty-six years later, I was charged with possession of a bladed instrument after a kitchen knife, which I used to cut up takeaway food for my disabled partner, was found in the back of my car. For this, I was given twelve months in prison.

Although I had not been in trouble during those thirty-six years, the judge decided that I had an affinity with knives, hence the custodial sentence. He was also influenced by the fact that I had borderline personality disorder (BPD) and had verbally abused my psychiatrist, whose incompetence had led me to believe for over a year that I was on a waiting list for treatment when, in fact, I wasn’t and never had been.

As a result of my ‘abuse’ of the psychiatrist, I was told that I would not now, nor in the foreseeable future, receive any help from the community mental health service (CMHS). This did not affect me too much; they seemed to know very little about BPD, and I knew I wouldn’t receive adequate treatment, even if they were willing. However, this lack of awareness was also obvious in court, to my detriment.

Anyone who has experienced a first night in prison will recognise the emotions that I went through. Desperation, claustrophobia, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt, shame, anger. All these emotions come together as soon as that thick metal door is closed. I would liken it to being thrown in a hole; in my case it was in an old army barracks, and it was cold and filthy. I could hear rats scurrying around outside, waiting for the prisoners’ leftover food that was regularly thrown to them out of the window.

My distress was evident but was inconsequential to the officers. One thing I learned quickly was that as soon as you enter prison, you are automatically seen as a liar, and an attention-seeker. On my fifth day, I sat on my bed and set fire to the mattress. I didn’t know at the time that prison officers are trained firefighters and the hose soon appeared in a hole in the door, put there for that very scenario. For this, I was given another twelve months in prison.


In my experience, and that of others I have spoken to, there is very little compassion among crown court judges when sentencing. Furthermore, sentences are inconsistent, which can lead to the individual feeling a sense of injustice and even bitterness. I feel this often when hearing about those who commit horrendous crimes and yet do not receive a sentence as harsh as mine. I accept responsibility for what I did. The knife was in my car for a valid reason, but it was illegal, and I paid the price. Arson is a serious crime and, although no-one was hurt, it could have got out of hand. I know that I was ill at the time, I certainly didn’t want to hurt anyone apart from myself, but it was wrong and, again, I paid the price.

UK judges are meant to look holistically at an offender when it comes to sentencing. How can they do that if they do not understand the reasons why the offence has been committed? The police detective in charge of my case insisted that I was ‘bad not mad’. Personally, I don’t think I am either, but people in authority do love a cliché!  She was helped by the fact that BPD is highly stigmatised and misunderstood, and I truly believe that the judge was risk averse. What if he released me and I reoffended? He wasn’t taking the chance. In reality, there was far more chance of someone convicted for a violent crime reoffending than me.

There is evidence in some countries that individuals are more likely to be disposed of quicker and without much thought, if they appear in front of the judge in the afternoon, rather than the morning.[i] This phenomenon is called ‘decision fatigue’ and, although there have been no studies in the UK, I think it’s safe to say that it does happen here.   

The court set-up

Regardless of the offence, the court set-up disadvantages the individual from the start. Although the holding cells differ between courts, many are extremely small, single cells with no natural light and not even enough bench space to lie down. If someone is appearing in the courtroom for a short time, they can be in that cell for seven or more hours, waiting for transport back to prison. These cells are extremely claustrophobic and there is no stimulation unless the custody officer is kind enough to offer a magazine. It can be tremendously distressing for the defendant and can affect their appearance in court.

After being taken up to the courtroom, the accused is seated in a box behind a sheet of glass that has a narrow slit in the middle. Even those without hearing problems can find it difficult to follow the conversation and this is further hindered by the fact that the barristers stand with their backs towards the box.

A typical American court will have the individual sitting with their defence team and so if they disagree with anything that is said, they can give a message to their team. This doesn’t happen in UK courts and so it often happens that by the time the defendant speaks to the barrister at the lunch break or at the end of the day, it is too late to argue the point.

There also seems to be a lack of thought for the individual when planning subsequent court appearances. I remember sitting in the box whilst the judge and my barrister discussed their respective diaries, trying to find a mutually available date. Every time they turned a page was extra time that I would be staying in prison. More expense for the taxpayer and more distress for me and my family.

Consequences of an inadequate CJS

The most obvious result of a broken system is financial; the enormous waste of money that is spent on sending people to prison instead of investing in preventative measures, such as better mental health care, accommodation, and other areas where people are subject to multiple disadvantages. Are we seen as collateral damage? Could the reason that the government fails to invest in prevention be because it is a long-term solution, and they need quicker outcomes in order to satisfy public opinion? A politician’s shelf-life is getting shorter, and they need that vote!

The most important consequence of sending people to prison unnecessarily is the long-term effect it has on those on remand/convicted, and their dependents. Children are likely to suffer trauma through their enforced separation form their parent(s) and in some cases, they are left alone with a father whose abuse, whether physical, coercive or some other form, has led directly to the mother being imprisoned. The children may be taken into care, meaning that when their parent gets released, there is no family home, leading to a long, traumatic process to bring the parent and child together gain.

Many people in prison are known to have at least one mental health condition. It is increasingly unlikely that they will get help for their problems, especially if they are serving a short sentence. For example, there are several personality disorder units in prison, but in order to access one the individual must have at least two years left to serve. The rest rely on prison services such as In-reach, usually a small team responsible for several hundred prisoners. Similarly, the various courses which address the individual’s crime and associated behaviour, and which are a main part of rehabilitation, are usually only available to those with a longer-term sentence.

A consequence of having an untreated mental health issue in prison is that the individual’s behaviour is not understood by the officers, and they are more likely to end up in segregation, isolated for twenty-three hours a day with very little stimulation. This has been called abhorrent and inhumane and can only exacerbate a mental health condition; it does not bode well for the individual when re-entering the community.

Is it madness?

The UK has the largest prison population in western Europe and the third largest in the whole of Europe. It also has the highest population of prisoners serving life sentences.[ii] Yet, recidivism is high, at around 50% for adults released from custodial sentences of less than twelve months.[iii] Reoffending is lower for those receiving community sentences, yet we continue to send people to prison for short sentences.

The true definition of madness is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result.  Albert Einstein

There are many reports highlighting the ways in which the CJS is failing both victims and offenders and recommending alternatives. Some of them are given below. However, I will leave you with the story of someone I met in prison which is, I believe, a perfect example of a broken criminal justice system:

‘A’ had received 44 days in prison for non-payment of council tax. She told me that she was exempt from the payment because she was on benefits but had failed to fill in the correct form. Consequently, she was liable for the full amount, just over £2,000. She could be released at any time if her family were able to make the payment in full. ‘A’ was sixty years old, not much older than me, and was devastated at the position she had found herself in. She had never been in trouble before and was struggling to process what had happened. She suffered from migraines but was laughed at by the officers, who said she was attention-seeking.

The amount of money it cost the taxpayer to keep ‘A’ in prison for 44 days far outweighed the amount of arrears she owed. If her family couldn’t pay to get her released early, a repayment plan would be put in plan on her release and a small amount would be taken from her benefits each week. Surely, all this could have been done beforehand and the financial cost and distress caused by her sentence could have been avoided!

Perhaps common sense should direct sentencing, with more attention focused on those who commit violent crimes. Perhaps the money saved by not imprisoning people with mental health conditions, and those who commit minor crimes, could be spent in the community, on mental health and other preventative measures. And perhaps decision-makers should not focus on their own agenda, but on what is important, fairness and justice.


Prison Reform Trust: Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment? (August 2022). Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment? | Prison Reform Trust

Prison Reform Trust: Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, Winter 2022 (January 2022). Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile: Winter 2022 | Prison Reform Trust

Prison reform Trust: Child Impact Assessment (November 2022). Child Impact Assessment | Prison Reform Trust

Revolving Doors: Identifying, understanding, and responding to the multiple complex needs of court service users (December 2022). Identifying, understanding, and responding to the multiple complex needs of court service users – Revolving Doors (

Revolving Doors: Understanding and improving defendant engagement (July 2022). Understanding and improving defendant engagement – Revolving Doors (

*Further articles and blogs from Sue Wheatcroft can be found at                                                   Sue Wheatcroft – Campaigner for change

**See also: Sue Wheatcroft, Pushing the Boundaries: struggling to comply in a women’s prison (January 2023). Pushing the Boundaries: struggling to comply in a women’s prison: Wheatcroft, Sue: 9798371883469: Books

[i] Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? – The New York Times (

[ii] UK prison population is biggest in western Europe | Prisons and probation | The Guardian

[iii] Proven reoffending statistics: January to March 2021 – GOV.UK (