Fitness for purpose: a makeover for criminal justice

1. There are numerous projects for different kinds of need; they should be maintained and new ones developed as required. There should also be a review of past projects which were successful but were terminated because funding came to an end. Adequate funding should be guaranteed as long as the project is working effectively. (The question of monitoring ‘effectiveness’ needs to be addressed.)

 2. ‘Exemplary projects’. If a project is working well after (say) two years, it should be able to apply for ‘EP’ status: with guaranteed funding for, say, five years, including an allowance for publications, and for staff time required for explanations to visitors and training for those who wish to start similar projects.

 3. ‘Transferable funding’. It is well known that prison creates at least as many problems as it solves, and costs much more than most alternatives. A major problem in changing to alternatives is that they are funded from a different source, so that money saved on prisons is not transferred to meet the extra cost incurred by allocating these cases to the preferred programme. This can be overcome by a quite simple transfer process:

  1. Probation officers preparing pre-sentence reports identify a frequently recurring local need, e.g. drug treatment, anger management, literacy, accommodation, vocational skills.
  2. The probation service locates or establishes a programme for individuals with this type of need.
  3. Where appropriate criteria are met, PSRs recommend a non-custodial sentence including participation in that programme.
  4. For each person by which the prison population is reduced, a sum of (say) three quarters of the average annual cost of a prison place is transferred to the programme, and one quarter is returned to the Treasury. .
  5. Independent researchers monitor the programme to ensure that only appropriate cases are referred, and that the recidivism rate is no higher than that of prison.

Before long, the prison population will be reduced sufficiently to allow prison wings or whole prisons to be closed, or planned prisons to be cancelled. The incentive for probation officers is job satisfaction, including a more personal relationship with their clients, and improved promotion prospects. Offenders will have the incentive to show that they can respond to the trust placed in them.

 It is important that the sums transferred keep pace with inflation. If a programme is introduced at the beginning of a financial year, and transfer payments made promptly, it is possible for the start-up costs of the programme to be refunded before the end of the financial year.

 4. Opportunities for all. A working group should be established to identify administrative obstacles to self-improvement, for example rules that cut off support from social services when a young person who has been forced out of an abusive home reaches the age of 16, and cuts housing benefit if he or she enters full-time education. Educational and vocational courses should be structured so that they can be combined with full- or part-time jobs. People who have successfully completed programmes should be recruited to run the programmes and to suggest other reforms.

 4. A restorative philosophy. Two main questions face us when we try to create a society acceptable for everyone: how do we try to persuade people to act in a way that does not harm others, and how do we respond when they do cause harm?

 One way of instilling the basic precept ‘Do as you would be done by’ is to teach children how to resolve conflicts, not by the use of force, but by a process of listening to both sides, and helping them to find ways forward hat are acceptable to both. This can start with methods such as circle time, in which children are encouraged to respect each other and to express their feelings in a positive way; another method is peer mediation, in which children themselves learn to mediate between others when there is a dispute. It has been shown to be an effective way of combating bullying, and thus reducing exclusions (of bullies) and truancy (of bullied children).

 This is not based on a behaviourist philosophy, but on building self-esteem, by providing paths to everyone’s desire to count for something. The public would be shown that wrongdoing can be ‘paid for’ not by undergoing pain but by making reparation; this would also show that the offender has good qualities, which would build his or her self-esteem and make their reacceptance into the community easier.

 Restorative methods have the additional advantage that they can involve the community, for example the extended family can be brought into family group conferences, and voluntary organizations can provide mediation services.

 5. Media. The media are quick to criticize programmes run by others. It may be possible to win their support for programmes which they themselves have sponsored. There have been at least three programmes recently reported in television programmes (Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, ‘Ballet changed my life’, and Monty Don’s gardening project). Newspapers could be encouraged to do likewise, subject to undertakings about revealing the identities of participants. A reserve fund would be needed to make sure that a project could continue even if sponsorship had to be terminated because the newspaper had breached the conditions.