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Crime and punishment

It’s time social work’s vital role in criminal justice is recognised, say Caroline Bald and Helen Woods who lead BASW’s criminal justice group. Shahid Naqvi reports

Published by Professional Social Work magazine

By the time someone is arrested, society has already failed. Those coming into contact with the criminal justice system are then failed again by punitive processes – and a third time by the social stigma of having a criminal record.

That’s the view of Caroline Bald and Helen Woods, co-chairs of BASW’s criminal justice group.

They believe criminal justice should be a central concern for social work. Yet too often those who work in this area feel disassociated from the “mainstream” of the profession.

That has been fuelled in England and Wales by the separation of social work and probation education in the late 1990s.

“If I had a magic wand I would ask for two things,” says Caroline, a social work lecturer at the University of Essex who has spent 20 years working in the criminal justice system. “I would ask for justice social work to be seen as social work and I would ask for criminal justice social work to be reinstated as part of social work education.

“If I had a bigger magic wand I would like probation training to return to social work or both social work and probation education to be transdisciplinary. Removing criminal justice as part of social work education has meant we have 20 years of a workforce that weren’t taught criminal justice social work as social work.”

From the Conservative policies of the 1990s onwards, probation work has focused more on enforcement, rehabilitation and public protection.

A separate Professional Qualification in Probation was created in England and Wales, with social work education providers excluded from applying to run it. Helen, who has spent more than 20 years working in probation and youth justice, recalls the impact of the shift.

“When I was in youth offending, there was a real divide between child protection and youth justice social workers. A misunderstanding between the two roles, yet we were working with the same group of people.”

The skills of social workers in navigating risk and building relationships are essential in the justice system, says Helen. But inflexible and punitive approaches do not fit well with that.

“If we are talking about relationship-based social work, that relationship cannot be bound by those kinds of bureaucratic procedures. There needs to be some subjectivity because that is where the humanity is.”

Latest figures for October show there were 78,789 people imprisoned in England and Wales, almost double the number in the 1990s. Scotland’s prison population has gone up by 60 per cent since 1990 and Northern Ireland’s by 36 per cent.

The Westminster government is investing £4 billion to deliver 18,000 extra prison places.

Caroline says: “The long and short of it is that in the UK and England in particular, we have aligned ourselves more with the United States in terms of being punitive.

“We have one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility at ten and we still make children go into an adult court. We imprison more women for non-violent offences. In 2020, 72 per cent of women who entered prison committed a non-violent offence. In 2019, 73 per cent of those prosecuted for non-payment of the TV licence were women, despite them making up only 49 per cent of licence holders.

“We punish the poor. It is no smarter than that.”

Caroline strongly believes incarcerating more people does not create a safer society.

“This idea that you have to catch out the bogey man doesn’t make sense. Conviction is only one indicator of risk.

“Wayne Couzens [the murderer of Sarah Everard] was a family man with two children. For the vast majority of people who commit serious sexual harm it is the first time they were convicted.

“There are no easy answers but we know we can’t hit someone over the head and make it better. More punishment doesn’t do the job, yet we still feel a need to focus on that.”

Deeply engrained societal attitudes are partly to blame for this, suggests Caroline: “I remember standing at a bus stop in a rainy Glasgow years ago and the talk of the bus station was that they had decided that Barlinnie Prison was going to allow prisoners televisions in their cells for the first time on Christmas Day and how this was an aberration. It’s this idea that not only do we remove liberty, we expect to see people in prison do hard labour.

“If you go back and look at theories around criminology, it’s a real indication of what society thinks of itself: it is maybe a lack of trust that you somehow have to up the punishment stakes to make people feel safer.

“There are some countries that are more enlightened. A prison in Jaipur, India, has a wall that was waist height. People come over the wall and spend a day at work and then go back over the wall.”

It’s difficult to imagine such an approach in Britain. Yet if we are to reduce crime, changing our conception of those who commits it is key, says Helen.

“We often conceive of people either as the offender or the victim. And we struggle with the idea that people are often both. We know young offenders are often victims of serious crime such as domestic abuse and sexual harm, bullying, knife crime.

“Often it goes unreported. But we struggle to identify them as vulnerable young people once they have committed an offence.

“We need a more compassionate approach. Coming to the attention of the police and criminal justice is quite far down a person’s road of vulnerability. If we saw it as a symptom of vulnerability for young people rather than a deviance, that would improve things.”

According to Caroline, people with criminal records are seen as a part of society that it is still “okay to discriminate against”.

“We punish people with a criminal conviction by not letting them back on the ladder. There are consequences of having a criminal record such as maybe not being able to get rented accommodation. Not being able to get a job, not being able to get education.

“But what does that actually achieve?”

Social work needs to look at itself too, adds Caroline. A recent paper in the British Journal of Social Work highlighted “limited opportunity for those with a history of incarceration from studying and practising social work”.

In 2019, a newly qualified social worker was dismissed by East Sussex Council because it saw her 18-year-old drugs conviction as a “reputational risk”.

Caroline is currently researching how social work education responds to people with criminal convictions. She says: “The concern is that social work is presenting itself as for people who have only done good. The regulator Social Work England asks social work education providers to check course applicants have good character and criminal records. Inevitably, we are finding different courses do this differently.

“What I am finding in my PhD is that social work academics see themselves as the gatekeepers to the profession – to becoming the child protection social worker, not just a student. There is a sense that we are somehow responsible for those coming into the profession.

“Almost one in four adults in the UK has a criminal conviction. And they are proportionately men and disproportionately Black men.

“So there is something intentional about not grasping the nettle on this in judging who we work with and who does the working with.”

Going forward, Caroline and Helen are keen for social workers with “lived experience” of criminal justice to get involved with the group and help change attitudes.

Other areas of focus include government plans to create 500 prison places for women in contradiction to the Female Offender Strategy. The group is also concerned about plans for a new secure school for young offenders, fearing it may result in this route being more readily pushed rather than community support options.

The treatment of pregnant mothers in prison and an over representation of autistic adults and adults with brain injury in the prison system are other areas of concern.

If you are interested in joining BASW England's criminal justice group email

The group's next online event - Bridging the Wall: social work practice with imprisoned parents is on 25 November. Book here