I spent this morning in the public gallery of one of Wycombe’s Magistrates’ courts. What I saw could have been a study for the Centre for Social Justice.

What I witnessed today included the following cases (I dispense with the details for obvious reasons):

  • Casual theft by a man with a methadone problem.
  • Taking a vehicle without consent.
  • Antisocial behaviour by a person with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, currently trying to turn their life around through work and treatment.
  • Theft of a phone.
  • Sending grossly offensive text messages — and they really were foul — by a young man to the mother of his 5-month-old child over a custody disagreement.
  • Speeding to escape an abusive husband.

In just three hours, I saw the consequences of family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, drugs and debt. The court saw a constant stream of human tragedy.

I imagine it will do so every day this week, as will every other in the land.

What next for the young father who is thrashing around, not knowing how to be a good dad, earning just £900 a month? What next for the person on methadone, stealing to cover a gap in benefit payments? What next in the heart-rending case of the young person aged 22 years, with two simple jobs, going through treatment for alcoholism, who narrowly escaped prison today?

Enter the Centre for Social Justice, which promotes practical, grass-roots solutions to social problems where the state may have failed. Of particular relevance is this recent speech by Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP:

While crime – particularly the fear of crime – impacts us all, it is most acute in our poorest areas. The middle classes fear crime but the most burgled, assaulted, raped and the most impacted by anti-social behaviour are the people who live on these estates.

These communities, typically dominated by social housing, are characterised by several common themes:

  • Entrenched breakdown of the family.
  • Generational worklessness.
  • Poor education.
  • Widespread addiction to drugs and alcohol.
  • Severe personal debt.
  • And violent street gangs.

People in such areas are five times more likely to be a victim of robbery than people in our wealthiest areas. They are twice as likely to be victims of violence, and other common crimes.

They are also five times more likely than their wealthier counterparts to perceive high levels of anti-social behaviour.

And it is from these communities that many offenders also originate.

The speech outlined an agenda for reform, covering:

  • Courts and sentencing
  • Police reform
  • Prison reform

The state is failing those most in need and we are all paying the price: I certainly do not believe the costs recovered from these people of meagre means covered the facility, the magistrates, the clerk to the court, the solicitors, the probation officer, the usher, the security staff and the administrators. This is not even to begin to count the social and material loss we all suffer from the brokenness in these lives, or the cost to come.

Something must be done to stem this river of misery, and it is not the same old top-down stuff.

You can find the full report here.

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