The criminal justice systems in Britain, the home of “the rule of law”, are broken. England and Wales together spend more on prisons than any other country in Europe except Russia. There is a backlog of almost 65,000 cases as defendants wait for years to have their day in court, and with recent figures showing 42% of prisoners who take their own lives are on remand – meaning they haven’t been sentenced – this purgatory is costing not just money, but lives.

At a time of dwindling resources, here are concrete manifesto commitments that an incoming Labour government should make.

1. Fully legalise cannabis

Since Uruguay became the first nation-state to fully legalise cannabis in 2013, Canada and half of the states in the US have followed suit, with a number of other countries having decriminalised the drug. Now the trend has come to Europe, with Malta and Germany having passed bills through their legislatures legalising the drug. The Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg are closely behind.

Interestingly, these countries are being confronted with opposition by the European Union, which is trying to block the creation of a cannabis market on the continent. For better or worse, this is a problem the UK no longer faces, meaning that British cannabis reform could steal a march on its European neighbours at a time when none of the other promised “Brexit dividends” appear to be paying off.

A new Labour government could frame its decision to end the criminalisation of cannabis in economic terms – making Britain Europe’s centre for a new growth industry, where sales in the US alone are estimated to top $72bn (£57bn) by 2030. More importantly, it will stop the government wasting money. While cannabis possession is unlikely to result in custodial sentences in practice, there were still 133,805 recorded offences for it in 2021, taking up a lot of time and public resources. Social attitudes to cannabis are ahead of the politicians, with a 2023 YouGov poll showing that 51% support the legalisation of cannabis in the UK, against 34% who oppose it (15% are unsure).

2. Expunge convictions based on racial bias

The Lammy review of 2017 calculated that while Black people only make up about 3% of the general population in Britain, they constitute 12% of adult prisoners, with that rate increasing to 21% when looking at the numbers for children in custody.

Inventive solutions can be found across the Atlantic. In California, lawmakers recently passed Assembly Bill No 256, often referred to as the Racial Justice Act. This law allows people with convictions to appeal to the court and seek relief if they can prove that racial bias was present in the prosecution of their case. A similar reform could allow Britain to address the racial disparity in the criminal justice system – a disparity that then feeds into social and economic inequality, as convictions limit the jobs a person can take, the visas they can apply for, and even the level of access a person can have to their own children.

Conservative misrule since 2010 has hollowed out areas of public life once thought to be secure – and if any image captured it, it was the sight of barristers in their 17th-century wigs and gowns, carrying placards as they took industrial action in 2022. Legal aid cuts have resulted in the number of people having to go to court without representation increasing threefold over the past decade.

And it’s not just lawyers who suffer from the lack of state investment in legal practice. The experience of the criminal justice system for victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence is often a traumatic one. Legal aid reform should include the creation of free and independent legal counsel for victims, especially with issues such as access to personal information sought by the police or lawyers – vulnerable victims can often grant access to private communications, mobile phone data, or confidential health, social services or counselling records without getting any advice on how this disclosure may affect their life.

A 2021 report by the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid noted that reversing the cuts made to criminal legal aid fees in 2014 would cost £60m a year. This is affordable and necessary.

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