Book Review: The penal crisis and the Clapham Omnibus: Questions and answers in restorative justice.
Sep 23, 2009
253 pp. ISBN 978 1 9043 8047 4
There has always been a temptation to regard restorative justice as an accessory to the conventional process, in which less serious cases may be diverted out of the system, but for more serious ones a restorative process is only available as an addition to punishment.
After two books explaining the theoretical and political case for restorative justice (Cornwell 2006, 2007), the author has drawn up a proposal for basing the whole system on restorative principles. His book is structured in three sections of five chapters, each addressing one of the questions which the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ (the lawyer’s stereotype of the ordinary person) would want answered.
The second section is about re-thinking prisons, which Cornwell vividly likens to an overloaded vehicle with neither brakes nor steering. As a former prison governor, he is a realist, but his three-part proposal is radical. Firstly, replace short prison sentences by community service. This would reduce prison overcrowding, so that, secondly, prison regimes could be constructive, being based on reparation plus rehabilitation. Thirdly, early release on parole would also be for reparation. But the suggestion that there should be residual ‘decent but austere’ prisons for ‘hard-core’ offenders who would not co-operate (p. 152), while logical, makes one uneasy.
Lastly, Cornwell considers how to make community sanctions both more effective and more credible. It would require a network of community corrections centres, paid for out of savings in the prison budget. They sound rather like the day training centres introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 1972, but with an element of reparation added to the rehabilitation. He seems to envisage community service as mainly done in groups, with public ‘visibility’ provided by putting the supervisors in distinctive uniforms – an ingenious touch. But there are difficulties in supervising reluctant groups (Vass 1986); the ideal is to find tasks which they can be motivated to do, and which bring out their best qualities, such as serving lunch at an old people’s home or exercising the limbs of a spastic boy.
Along the way, Cornwell makes some thoughtful points, which theorists too often ignore. Justice means fairness, not just blind uniformity of treatment. It is virtually impossible to make punishments proportionate to the harm caused by the offence (p. 214).
His argument is not ‘soft’: ‘it is entirely reasonable to insist that those who perpetrate crime should suffer unpleasant consequences as the social response to offending behaviour’ (p. 59), but this should not be punishment for its own sake: ‘[p]unishing such disadvantaged people time after time without addressing their social deficits is not only pointless: , it is also vindictive’ (p. 162). He quotes Pat Carlen: ‘the state’s right to punish rests on its contractual obligation to address the social problems that cause lawbreaking’ (p. 121)..
Cornwell deals with several of the major objections to reducing the prison population, although not the one that says that crime in England has gone down while the prison population has gone up, therefore the former is the result of the latter. He has little to say about white collar crime; he could have added that presumably it too is the result of faulty upbringing; and it is one of the causes of deprivation of other people; in addition the white collars (or ‘suits’) often manage to prevent their harmful activities from being defined as crime.
He points out that restorative justice provides communication by which needs can be identified, but might have emphasised this feedback function more strongly. Victims are considered, but the book focuses primarily on offenders. Despite a few reservations like these, the book presents a dose of realism for advocates of restorative justice, with a down-to-earth plan for a constructive criminal justice system which could, with some political effort, be accepted as the new commonsense.
Cornwell, D J (2006) Criminal punishment and restorative justice: past, present and future perspectives. Winchester: Waterside Press and Portland, OR: International Specialized Book Services.
Cornwell, D J (2007) Doing justice better: the politics of restorative justice. Winchester: Waterside Press and Portland, OR: International Specialized Book Services.
Vass, A A (1986) ‘Community Service: Areas of Concern and Suggestions for Change’ Howard Journal :25 (:2) , May, 100-111.