A guest post for Prison Watch UK, calling not just for reform of the criminal justice system, but for a transformation of its basic philosophy.
The beginnings of restorative justice
In the 1970s some probation officers and others in the criminal justice system became aware that victims of crime were ignored, except as witnesses, and formed a group of volunteers to offer victim support. The idea spread, until local victim support schemes covered the country.
About the same time, a Canadian probation officer had the idea that it would be more effective if victims actually met their offenders, and were able to ask them questions, leading to an apology or reparation if required. He tried it, and it worked. The practice has developed in other parts of the world, under the name ‘restorative justice’.
It is not suitable for all cases, but when it is, both victims and offenders are overwhelmingly satisfied. Offenders are more likely to recognise the harm they have caused others, rather than think of their own punishment and how to avoid it.
Re-thinking penal philosophy
Despite humane efforts by many staff, and a few progressive programmes for prisoners, government policies have pushed the prison system into crisis, through punitive measures, overcrowding, understaffing and lack of purposeful activity.
The high reconviction rate is not surprising, not to mention the undeserved pain caused to prisoners’ families.
It is vital for the new government to re-think the penal philosophy and practice which have led us into this situation. Here’s a suggestion of how.
A blueprint for justice based on restorative principles
1. Accept joint responsibility for crime
As a starting point we must acknowledge that responsibility for preventing and responding to crime and conflict lies with every individual and with the community. This includes providing support for victims of crime.
2. Community must engage in support
Whenever appropriate, the response to a crime should include a facilitated meeting between those harmed and those responsible, subject to the consent of both. Many cases could be kept out of the ciminal justice system altogether. Such programmes are being practised, in a patchy way, in some parts of the country.
But to make it available everywhere a network of local organisations should be established, in a similar way to the early Victim Support schemes, to recruit, train, support and supervise facilitators, who would work on a voluntary basis. They would also educate the public in restorative, or ‘participatory’, decision-making and conflict resolution.
Feedback would be incorporated into the system; when recurrent pressures towards conflict and crime were observed, policy-makers should be informed so that they could take action.
3. Serving the purposes of prison, outside prison
It is vital to consider what we expect sentencing to achieve. Currently its purposes are mixed: reducing the likelihood that the person will offend again; making reparation to the victim or the community; declaring the seriousness of the crime, and protecting the public.
Under the new blueprint, these objectives would be dealt with separately:
a. Reducing reoffending
Offenders would be required to undergo a programme to make them aware of why their action was wrong, and make them less likely to repeat it.
Examples would be: for road traffic offences, a course on driving and road safety; for addiction, therapy; for violence, anger management; for lack of work skills, education and training; for financial misconduct, a course of business ethics.
b. Reparation to victim and community
Offenders should make reparation to the victim and/or the community, including co-operation with a programme such as the above.
c. Acknowledging the gravity of the crime
The seriousness of the offence would be marked by the period of time for which the offender must be kept under supervision. For less serious offences, the offender would have to report regularly, by means of a community order. For the more serious, a suspended prison sentence would be ordered.
The period would be roughly proportionate to the seriousness, but could be longer than the time required to fulfil the requirements.
d. Protecting the public
The prison sentence would only be enforced where there was a substantial risk that the person would commit further serious offences or abscond. Otherwise the above requirements would be met in community facilities or special day centres. In prison, the regime would enable the primary and secondary purposes (above) to be carried out and provide, for those who need it, a place of hope and transformation, preparing them for acceptance into society.
For serious offenders, when a prison sentence was unavoidable, one way of making reparation would be to co-operate with research into the origins of their behaviour – be it sexual abuse, violent extremism, or financial misconduct – with a view to feedback into preventive policies listed above.
These measures do restrict liberty, but their purpose is not punishment for its own sake. They do not work by creating and exploiting fear, but by encouraging remorse at the harm caused, and the self-esteem that will enable the wrongdoer to make amends.
The cost would be met by reducing the number of prison places, and a mechanism should be in place to transfer the funding.
Insofar as criminal justice aims to deter people from offending, the deterrence lies in the probability of being caught. The focus of policies to reduce crime will not solely lie with criminal justice, but with targeted crime prevention measures, combined with creating a culture in which there are higher expectations of law-abiding behaviour and fewer pressures that lead to offending behaviour.