Winston Churchill: “Prisoner’s Friend”

Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill (1874-1965) was a British statesman, historian, and journalist, but he was also an ardent advocate for criminal justice reform. His efforts in the area reflect concerns that are familiar to us today. As he explained to Parliament, “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.”

Famed for his speeches and leadership at the height of World War II, Churchill was also one of the 20th century’s first major criminal justice reformers. His passion for reform was kindled by his experience as a prisoner of war during the Boer War. Though he was not in captivity for long, the experience made him “the Prisoner’s Friend,” in the words of Lady Violet Bonham Carter.

One former prisoner he befriended was the poet Wilfrid Blunt, who had served time in a harsh Irish prison for the crime of giving a speech in public, which was banned at the time as sedition.  Churchill and Blunt regularly discussed the prospects of prison reform and the situation of prisoners of conscience. Another friend, John Galsworthy, was an accomplished lawyer by training, but chose to present his arguments for criminal justice reform in the form of popular novels and plays. Churchill took his political colleagues to see Galsworthy’s play Justice in April 1910 and soon thereafter visited certain prisons to inspect conditions.

Between these influences and his own experience, Churchill developed an agenda for criminal justice reform, setting it into motion from the start of his term as home secretary in February 1910. Churchill laid out his plans in a speech before Parliament that July:

I shall certainly be very glad to be able to announce it to the House of Common the first real principle which should guide anyone trying to establish a good system of prisons should be to prevent as many people as possible getting there at all.

Excessive Sentencing As a Symptom of Overcriminalization

Excessive sentencing was a prime concern, but Churchill was clear that it did not come about on its own, but rather as a symptom of overcriminalization. Today, there remain clear parallels to the dilemma Churchill acknowledged. In the United States, for example, there are more than 4,500 defined crimes on the books and over 300,000 regulatory violations that bear criminal penalties.

Churchill pointed out in his speech that the imprisonment of people for not being able to immediately pay a fine meant that “the State loses its fine, and the man goes to prison, perhaps for the first time—a shocking event. He goes through practically all the formalities… and the State has to pay for it all.”

Not only is it a net financial loss for the authorities, but such a sentence can have negative effects on the formerly incarcerated long after release. Today, unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decisions have prohibited jailing people for being unable to pay fines, however many cities have violated this by relabeling the fines “court fees” and sending those who cannot pay to prison anyway.

Early Views on Mandatory Minimums

Also on Churchill’s agenda for reform was the issue of minimum sentencing: “It is only three to one that he does not shoot over Niagara in the sense of a very long sentence of eight, ten, or twelve years for an offence for which in many other cases three or four months would be deemed sufficient by the court,” he said. Imprisonment, for Churchill, meant “the convict stands deprived of everything that a free man calls life.” Excessive sentences lead to greater collateral consequences, chief among them is the fact that it is difficult to re-enter society:

We cannot impose these serious penalties upon individuals unless we make a great effort and a new effort to rehabilitate men who have been in prison and secure their having a chance to resume their places in the ranks of honourable industry.

Barriers to re-entry after prison have a two-fold impact: Not only do they keep restored citizens out of legitimate jobs and incentivize recidivism, but they also hurt the economy by keeping people outside of it. The key, according to Churchill, is “to enable prisoners, on release from penal servitude, to have a fair chance of taking their place in the ordinary life of the country.”

For the Prisoner’s Friend, a fair criminal justice system was the bedrock of a free society:

A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the State, and even of convicted criminals against the State … a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment … and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man—these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.

Churchill recognized the need for punishment in the criminal justice system, but he also emphasized that the punishment should fit the crime. He pointed out that “persons committed to prison for passive resistance” and suffragettes, for example, should not be punished like violent offenders.

Winston Churchill is most famous for his leadership during World War II, but his tireless work in the field of criminal justice reform serves as an inspiration and an example as we tackle the problems of today.

Through research, partnerships, and educational opportunities, the Charles Koch Institute is committed to helping create a fair and effective criminal justice system that reduces costs, promotes human dignity, restores victims, and enhances public safety to increase well-being for all.

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