A comment on Do Better Do Less: The report of the Commission on English Prisons Today
Jul 10, 2009
by Martin Wright
The Commission on English Prisons Today is an independent commission set up in 2007 by the Howard League for Penal Reform. Its 77-page report details the growth in prison population in the UK, accompanied by a rise in the reconviction rate, and aggravated by 49 ‘law-and-order’ laws between 1980 and 2009. By contrast England in 1908-39, and Finland in 1960-2000, have shown that imprisonment can be deliberately reduced with no effect on the crime rate. Scotland is planning to do likewise.
The Commission, whose president was Cherie Booth QC, wife of the former prime minister Tony Blair, therefore proposes ‘a significant reduction in the prison population and the closure of establishments; the replacement of short prison sentences with community-based responses; and a clear acknowledgement that criminal justice is a blunt tool which cannot in itself provide lasting solutions to the problem of crime.’ (§1.22).
The United States are held up as a warning, though with some encouraging initiatives. New York celebrates its declining crime rate. In Scandinavia,’ It is acknowledged in policy and practice that the problems which bring most people to Norwegian and Finnish prisons cannot be resolved in the prison setting ‘ (§ 2.10).
A case is made for penal moderation : To sentence an offender to imprisonment should be a difficult action and one which requires the most rigorous of justifications when all other options of social control have been exhausted (§3.13). Justice should be local, with community courts – New York’s Red Hook court and Liverpool’s community justice centre are examples, though they depend on the ‘charismatic brilliance of individual judges’ (p. 38).
The Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005. sets up Community Justice Authorities to promote collaborative working to reduce crime and re-offending. Local areas should be able ‘to shift resources from the funding of prison places to the funding of community needs’ (§4.19). In ‘justice re-investment’, funding that would otherwise be spent on custody is transferred into community based initiatives outside the criminal justice system which tackle the underlying causes of much crime’. (§5.2). But the Commission says that the English Ministry of Justice has misunderstood this concept, and is targeting individual offenders, not communities.
Delivering change through restorative justice
In its final section the report proposes much wider use of restorative justice, although it says little about the actual process and the importance of doing it well. It sees restorative justice as having been mostly used to deal with conflicts in schools, community and neighbourhoods, and with anti-social behaviour to some considerable effect, but the Commission agrees that there is considerable potential for it in dealing with crime. It is a complement to justice reinvestment.
Restorative justice can be used at various stages of the criminal justice process, or as diversion from prosecution. The Commission is supportive of restorative justice for more serious offences and offenders in the context of a pared down criminal justice system (§6.5), in which restorative justice is used in conjunction with a reduced custodial sentence.
There has been low victim involvement in UK restorative justice schemes, because of organisational failings. Unless resources are shifted towards improved contact, training and support in relation to victims, restorative justice will remain a tool for the rehabilitation of offenders rather than a process that also brings a greater sense of justice to victims. Government targets don’t include it.
Restorative justice also has an important function to play in delivering penal moderation, community safety and confidence, and offender reintegration,. but only if restorative processes are protected by legal and ethical safeguards which ensure that the very real risks of secondary victimisation for victims and disproportionate sentencing and net-widening for offenders are controlled.