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19 September 2011

Save our failing justice system

An ICM poll last week revealed that the overwhelming majority want a system where offenders are required to make amends for the harm they have done. Just over a month after the riots shook our cities, 94% of the 1,000 people polled said that people who commit theft or vandalism should do unpaid community work as part of their sentence.

Almost nine out of 10 agreed victims should have the chance to tell offenders of the distress they have caused. More than 70% believed victims should have a say in how the offender can best make amends. This is a different way of doing justice, with the emphasis on victims having a proper say and offenders having to work and take responsibility for putting things right.

So is there any evidence that unpaid community work or restorative justice cuts crime? Here Ministry of Justice figures show that community sentences easily out-perform a spell behind bars for petty, persistent offenders and are almost 10% more effective in reducing reoffending rates. It stands to reason that someone paying back to the community on a supervised scheme, and someone who has to pay bills and behave responsibly, is more likely to go straight than someone locked up and sleeping through their sentence, as the chief inspector of prisons put it last week.

When it comes to restorative justice, Home Office research found that it reduced the frequency of reoffending by 14%. Since 2003 the Youth Conference Service in Northern Ireland has placed restorative justice at the heart of its system. Both the Prison Reform Trust and the Police Foundation explored its impact and saw the potential benefits of introducing a similar model in England and Wales. There are already shining examples around England. Derbyshire Constabulary has been using restorative justice since April 2009 and 12,213 crimes have now been resolved by way of the scheme. Supt Terry Branson confirmed:

It saves thousands of officer hours, reduces reoffending rates and, most importantly, provides satisfaction for victims. Offenders often see this as a wake-up call.

Effective projects are run in Norfolk and Somerset, and Hull has adopted a citywide approach. Hackney local youth offending team is using restorative justice to restore public confidence after the riots. However, these schemes are bright lights in a dark landscape. In most places you will still find the revolving door of petty, persistent offending followed by prison, followed by more crime.

Overuse of remand and prison overcrowding all clog up the system. Each year time is taken up processing and imprisoning more than 55,000 people on remand. When they get to court around 40% will not receive a prison sentence. In just over 15 years the prison population has almost doubled to more than 87,000 men, women and children.

Numbers are at a record high and most prisons are experiencing problems associated with overcrowding. It costs £45,000 per year on average to lock someone up and reoffending rates are unacceptably high, with around half of all released prisoners being reconvicted within a year. For those under 18 the reconviction figure rises to 72%. In politics most seem to agree that if anything good could come out of the riots it would be a fairer, more reparative system.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg has spoken of “riot payback” schemes and Justice Minister Lord McNally made it clear that “restorative justice is not a soft option”. Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan last week described restorative justice programmes that make young offenders take responsibility for their crimes as “transformative justice”.

There was strong backing, too, from former Home Secretary David Blunkett. Current Home Secretary Theresa May commended its “record of dealing particularly well with those who are young and first offenders” and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke confirmed that the government is committed “unswervingly” to making more use of restorative justice.

The results of the ICM poll are already being discussed in Parliament. As well as strong support for making amends to victims and for unpaid community work, most people thought that better parental supervision would be effective. This was followed by “better mental health care” and “treatment to tackle drug addiction”. “A prison sentence” came low down the list as an effective deterrent.

As party conference season starts, we often seem to hear political point scoring but sorting out the justice system is too important, and too pressing, to argue about. Politicians simply cannot allow things to drift. They must use their authority, and the justice bill currently before Parliament, to ensure that effective community payback schemes and restorative justice programmes are available to courts right across the country, leaving prison for the serious and violent offenders who need to be there.

There is scope for a profound change in the way we respond to crime and disorder that would improve victim satisfaction and reducing reoffending.

It’s what people want and it works.


This article was published in the Sunday Express