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Bringing powers over criminal justice to Wales will create a fairer, safer system

28 Jan 2019 4 minute read
Barbed wire picture by ErikaWittlieb (no copyright) and dragon and sky by David Jones (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru Rhondda AM

Research findings released by the Wales Governance Centre last week show that Wales has the highest incarceration rate in western Europe. This should be a source of national shame.

We lock up more people than England despite having a lower crime rate, and women, Black, Asian and minority ethnic people and Wales’s most deprived communities are disproportionately affected. 

This should prompt us to ask some searching questions about what it is we want from our justice system, and how is it serving those aims:

  • Does locking up more and more people in increasingly overstretched and unsafe prisons really help keep our communities safer?
  • Does gutting the probation service and selling it off really help people get their lives back on track?
  • And does allowing private companies such as G4S who have been linked to serious human rights abuses to run prisons for profit give us a sound basis for a fairer society? 

This week in the Senedd Plaid Cymru will be leading a debate calling for full devolution of justice in order to create a fairer system to the benefit of all our communities. 

We want to see justice devolved because we believe that is the way to create a system that works. The Tories’ approach to justice is punitive, unfair and focused on generating private profit from criminalisation and human suffering.

Their system is failing our communities and we can do better. 


The statistics published by the Wales Governance Centre are indicative of the scale of poverty and social deprivation in Wales. They also highlight serious issues of gender and racial inequality within the justice system.

Women are more likely to receive an immediate custodial sentence than men and ethnic minorities have the highest average sentence length.

It is also concerning that the higher rates of incarceration for Wales’s most deprived communities. There is a clear link between poverty and crime, and the treatment working-class offenders by the courts. 

A privatised probation service and lack of confidence from the courts in community based responses, coupled with austerity-driven cuts to legal aid and not being able to access justice, has resulted in more people in Wales being sentenced directly to prison.

There is a clear link between the privatisation of the probation service, the pursuit of profit and poor performance in supervision and monitoring.

Probation services must be brought back under public control alongside establishing a rehabilitative prison system with a specific focus on assisting people and helping them to break the vicious cycle of reoffending through well-resourced community based courses and initiatives.

The criminal justice system should focus on establishing problem-solving justice initiatives that seek to tackle the root causes of offending at an early stage and focus on prevention, rather than retribution after the crime has been committed.

In particular, custodial sentences should only be used for women and young people in the most exceptional circumstances. Our current focus on punishing people gets us nowhere, leading only to more families being torn apart, cycles of reoffending, substance misuse and mental health issues. 

Our new First Minister has said that he is not in favour of full devolution of justice to Wales, and favours a piecemeal approach. I would ask him, if he agrees with what we are calling for – from focusing on rehabilitation to ending private profit from prisons – then why wait?

Let’s demand the tools to do things ourselves and build a better system. 

Devolving responsibility for criminal justice would enable us to forge our own path in Wales. Rather than topping the league table for imprisonment, we could create a fairer, transformative system that would be a beacon for justice around the world.

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