The government is planning to construct ways for offenders to make amends to victims. Last Tuesday in a speech to the All Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group, Justice Minister Lord McNally, set out measures to increase capacity and capability for restorative justice.
Politicians are wary of anything that could lay them open to accusations of going soft on crime. It is not unusual to find sensible, humane policies presented in an ‘acid wrap’ of punitive language by whichever party is in power.
Not without reason. During the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, enacted in May, the government’s principled proposals to abolish the Kafkaesque indeterminate sentence for public protection came under fire from the Opposition who accused Justice Ministers of wanting to “let all the dangerous people out.” This, despite the havoc wreaked by the sentence on the prison service and Parole Board since 2005, with over 3,500 IPP prisoners currently held beyond tariff. And despite David Blunkett, the Home Secretary responsible for its introduction, acknowledging that the sentence was in desperate need of reform.
One young man serving an IPP sentence told the Prison Reform Trust:
To lower my risk, I have to do ETS [Enhanced Thinking Skills: a course offered in prison] but because I can’t read and write, I can’t lower my situation. I’m just stuck. They are saying that until I can read and write I can’t do ETS and I can’t lower my risk. It’s hard. Hard dealing with the sentence let alone dealing with the stress of not being able to do the course. It’s like when I’m trying to say I can’t learn no more. I’ve been to a special school and I’ve learnt as much as I can but they don’t believe that. But why should I be punished for two things? I’m being punished for the crime and again for not being able to read and write.
Does the political talk of punishment matter if, behind the scenes, those responsible for the system are drawing on evidence of what works to reduce offending rather than following a vacuous, populist line? Well yes, it does, if scaremongering by politicians or the press increases the erosive and damaging fear of crime. And, of course, punitive language matters if it leads to harsher, rather than more effective, regimes for people in prison. Just as the new language of the market, the “stock and flow” of prisoners, or “creaming and parking” of offenders —whereby a provider ‘creams off’ the easiest to work with offenders to meet reoffending targets and ‘parks’ or ignores those who are harder to work with but may need the most support — is almost bound to have a demeaning, undermining effect on managers and staff responsible for developing and maintaining a fair, humane and effective penal system.
Deprivation of liberty is the most extreme punishment that can be meted out to an offender in the UK and, as such, must be reserved as a just desert for those adults who have committed the most serious or violent crimes. People are sent to prison as a punishment, not for further punishment. Prison should mean loss of liberty but not loss of identity — as Mark Day has argued here on OurKingdom.
Long before they get into trouble and become caught up in the justice system, very many offenders are used to punishment, not as a measured, proportionate response to wrongdoing but as random acts of cruelty often born of frustration and ignorance. The latest figures (collated in the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile) show that 39% of children in custody had been on the child protection register or had experienced neglect and abuse and a staggering 71% had been involved with, or in the care of, social services prior to imprisonment. Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic violence and one in three has been sexually abused. Around half of all the men and women in prison ran away from home as a child. Lives have been characterised by loss and untimely bereavement. In the light of this, a good case could be made for punishing less and understanding more, or, at the least, making sensible connections between criminal justice and social policy.
Our justice system has been beleaguered by tough political rhetoric, media hype and now swingeing budget cuts. In twenty years the prison population has all but doubled. This is largely due, not to any crime wave, but to increased sentence lengths, the introduction of disproportionate mandatory penalties and an earlier recourse to custody for those who, in the past, would have been required to pay a fine or do community service.
Now the Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile reveals that 83 of 134 prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded. Outcomes of excessive use of imprisonment are bleak. There are high levels of violence and self-harm. Just 36% of people leaving prison go into education, training or employment. Very many are homeless and in debt on release. Prison has a poor record for reducing re-offending with 47% of all adults reconvicted within one year of release, rising to 57% for those serving sentences of less than 12 months and almost 70% for under 18 year olds.
The surest way to build up the adult prison population for decades to come is to lock up youngsters. A 45% drop in the number of children and young people entering the youth justice system, with 1,000 fewer young people in custody today than there were 10 years ago, offers hope for the future.
Community sentences led by probation, police and the voluntary sector are now outperforming short prison sentences and are almost 10% more effective in reducing reoffending rates. Their hallmarks are integrated offender management and intensive supervision, community payback, restorative justice, developing personal responsibility, and responding to support needs such as housing, employment, addictions, mental health and learning disabilities and difficulties.
It would be a great shame if, rather than building on this success, in a misplaced drive to win public confidence, the government moved to make community sentences more punitive. Its recent 46 page consultation was littered with 42 uses of ‘punitive’ and 48 references to ‘punishment’ with far less emphasis on rehabilitation and reform.
Yet our ICM poll, commissioned just after the riots last summer, indicated widespread support for a justice system with making amends to victims at its heart. The Ministry of Justice recognises that restorative justice is both demanding and effective. A mark of authoritative government today would be to signal and lead a radical shift from a retributive to a reparative approach to justice.
This article was first published in Open Democracy.