Do we need a Different Kind of Justice?


So, you come home after a hard day at work to find your home has been broken into. Someone has rifled through your private life and some of your personal possessions are missing; how do you feel and what do you need to happen to gain some closure from the incident and move on?

Feelings of shock, despair, upset and anger are all natural emotions for any victim of crime, perhaps even more so with burglary than some other crimes. Often there are myriad questions racing around your head. Why me? Why would anyone do it? Will the police catch the offender? Will the courts prosecute them? Will they lock the offender up and throw away the key to protect others? One question that doesn’t appear very often in a victims head is, why did he/she do it? If that question does present itself, how many victims really care about the true answer to it?

Yesterday morning I listened to A Different Kind Of Justice on BBC Radio 4. In the programme, dialogue expert Karl James was exploring the relatively new ideas behind the so-called Restorative Justice process.

In November 2008, Margaret interrupted a burglary in her own home. As she came through the backdoor, the burglar left through the front. He had taken a laptop full of photos commemorating her daughter Jessica’s 18th birthday. Eight months later her daughter was killed in a tragic car accident. The theft of the laptop meant her parents were deprived of any recent family photos of their daughter. For Margaret, the burglary and her daughter’s death became entwined, increasing her sense of anger and impotence. But, inspired by the memory of her daughter, Margaret agreed to meet the offender in a restorative justice conference in Preston Prison…(

Always having been something of a sceptic, it was interesting to listen to both sides’ perspective on what happened and the long-term consequences of their meeting. A lifetime of seeing the same ‘customers’ over and over again as a police officer tends to taint your viewpoint a little. I even had one ‘regular’ who’s sole aim of his criminality was to be incarcerated at Christmas. He said it was his favourite time of the year even though he was locked away, at least he had friends, good food and TV, all the stuff he didn’t get at home. 

That said, I was never one of those us and them coppers. Yes I wanted to catch the ‘bad guys’ and protect the public but for me, my raison d’être was always more about trying to understand an offender and what drove them, as opposed to the simple punitive consequences after the crime. My grandmother who was active independent and looking forward to her birthday telegram from HM Queen was burgled in her 99th year. Her death occurred whilst I was still relatively young but I will always believe that the offender(s) were instrumental in her demise in some way. The emotional trauma being the catalyst for her giving up on life?

It didn’t make me angry, it made me want to understand why people do what they do after all, there must be a reason, mustn’t there? People aren’t born bad, are they?

The role of the police has never been to dish-out the punishment and neither should it be. The punishment aspect of dealing with any criminal belongs to society and is vested in our courts, the prisons and the remainder of the criminal justice system (CJS). The sad fact of that is that our CJS appears to be failing us today and on so many levels.

Criminal justice system ‘failing’: Reoffending rates after a prison sentence are at an “unacceptably high level” and the failure of the criminal justice system to stop prisoners reoffending should shock the public…(

Lord Woolf, the lord chief justice’s said that “crowded prisons cannot break the cycle of crime” and he’s probably right. Prison is only part of the rehabilitation process, despite the recent call by Paul Kernaghan, chief constable of Hampshire (amongst others), for judges to send more offenders to prison for the protection of the public. Filling our penal establishments with crooks goes some way towards appeasing the angst of society however; failure to do much that is ‘constructive’ with our resident prison population serves little or no purpose for any prospects of social improvement.

If we move away from our predominant “lock ’em up” mentality than it falls upon the so-called community based punishments which are handled mainly by our probation services. This week the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, outlined plans for the ‘wholesale outsourcing of the probation service’ to private companies and voluntary sector organisations (see here), hoping that they would “take over the rehabilitation of the majority of offenders” by 2015.

The Probation Chiefs Association has significant concerns that this, combined with the pace with which the government intends to implement these reforms, could end up compromising public safety…(Sarah Billiald – Probation Chiefs Association)

Quiet obviously the PCA weren’t happy, their jobs will be (partly) at risk but a letter to The Guardian from Jon Spencer, Senior lecturer in criminal justice, School of Law, University of Manchester confirmed they’re not alone (see here) he wrote; “This is nothing more than an act of vandalism based on ideology. These proposals are the work of vandals because they create another fracture in the social contract between citizen and state.”

The plans that are condemned by many, not least the political opposition who branded them as “reckless” don’t even inspire confidence in their supporters; Grayling himself admits that privatisation plans won’t cut reoffending dramatically but he hopes they will produce ‘steady’ decline (see here). Commenting on the Probation verses Prison debacle in The Guardian recently Ian Birrell wrote;  Chris Grayling takes one step forward on probation, then one giant step back on jails (see here).

I would partly agree with the observation however; aren’t all politically developed ‘solutions’ to any given problem mostly designed to court public favour and popularity, as opposed to realistic prospects of tangible results?

Crime statistics (mostly manipulated) suggest that crime is in decline which is good. With rapidly reducing police resources trying to catch the criminals, perhaps we’ll have to be a little less sceptical about crime statistics, if only to gain some blinkered peace of mind. Thankfully more statistics also show us that even though our penal establishments have been full to capacity, the prison population is finally in decline.

According to the latest figures there are 83,632 people locked up in English and Welsh prisons. This is an obscenely large number that should shame the nation. It is almost double the number in jail when the last Conservative prime minister took office, and more per capita than any other country in western Europe…(

Allegedly there is less crime, there are fewer offenders that need to be locked away and those that remain can be dealt with adequately in the community by our probation service… The one that is destined to be sold off to the highest private sector bidder… All good news isn’t it?

Not really, for a start our community based sanctions were never intended to be the sole punitive or  retributive measure meted out to an offender per se. Community service was supposed to be “a constructive penalty whereby the offender took on the burden of social responsibility towards others.”

In Forty Years of Community Service, John Harding – Chief Probation Officer for inner London 1993-2001, explains how the measure that once required offenders to carry out socially beneficial work, in addition to their punitive sentence, was subsequently turned into a form of punishment. Since inception in the 1970s the image of community service has been “ratcheted up by politicians to match penal populism.” The demands for tougher community penalties have been paralleled by the rebranding of community service to community punishment, then community payback.

Whether the foundation stones of community service, laid down over the past 40 years, will survive under fragmentation and privatisation is open to question…(John Harding)

Like the campaign which highlights the wastefulness of short-term prison sentences and promotes wider adoption of intensive community sentences, we’re all looking of ways to Make Justice Work? But don’t hold your breath waiting to see the rock busting chain-gangs along the highways of your daily commute. Even if that is the correct way to address the problem?

It is starting to look like the only chance of any realistic offender reduction is going to fall at the feet of victims and the Restorative Justice Process. Meetings between victims and the perpetrators of a crime are undergoing a huge expansion in the UK. New government legislation is being introduced to establish a best practice action plan for Restorative Justice, within the criminal justice system. Studies suggest the activity can reduce reoffending rates and help the victim come to terms with the crime.

Worryingly, the current austerity led reductions in publicly funded crime fighting resources are starting to dictate a DIY-CJS process. The question of how long it is before our frustrated society starts looking at having a go at the enforcement end of the process is also a worry!

One thought on “Do we need a Different Kind of Justice?

  1. Put them all in pink jumpsuits, legchains and get them out graffting, paying back to society, earning their keep. Take the TV’s and games consuls out of the prisons, and put prison farms, manuturing processes in and teach the scrotes a trade. Never mind police commisioners, lets take a leaf out of the Yanks book and let the locally elected sherriff call the shots. Restorative justice my arse, just another dodge to get days knocked off their sentance, life should mean life and two years mean two years, not six months cause the’ve been a good boy or girl whilst in there, they are in there in the first place for NOT being good. To much PC stuff going on here, they are not being terribly PC when they rape your Kin or rob your house, do you think they really give a toss when most of the prisons are better equipped than our forces barracks, i think not. Bring back the birch!!!!! Slainte


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