Thursday, 2 July 2009

We're prison junkies. We need rehab.

Prison is not working. 84,000 are now in prison. We spent £22.7 billion on criminal justice in England and Wales last year. Those we punish are largely the poor and disadvantaged, those with mental health needs and drug or alcohol addictions. Inequality and social breakdown are conducive to criminal behaviour as international evidence shows in country after country. And we bring to sword of justice down most heavily on those who suffer in this unequal society of ours. Our criminal justice system is unethical and it is ineffective.

It is madness. A crucial report published today by the Commission on English Prisons Today, presided over by Cherie booth QC and chaired by criminologist, Professor David Wilson, is unequivocal. Our system of penal justice is in crisis- it neither serves to create safe communities nor rehabilitate offenders in any meaningful way- and yet we are locked in path dependency. We'll lock more people up, for longer, and we'll be caught in the same cycle of failure.

The report is entitled
Do Better, Do Less. Two things instantly leap out beyond the quite obvious case that we've set ourselves on a course of inevitable failure when it comes to criminal justice. Firstly, the report makes a powerful appeal to our sense of national ethics. We are people who value restraint, moderation, pragmatism, and humanity. Yet, our penal reform policies first under Michael Howard under the last Tory government and then accelerated under this government, have followed a different course- one of excess, vengefulness, and punishment rather than rehabilitation.

So we have fallen short ethically and we have strayed from our national characteristics. Just as torture offends the core values of the United States and fails to make it safer; penal excess is the same thing in the UK context.

Beyond ethics there is the question of effectiveness. Like so many areas of public policy we have been focusing on process- and ever more bureaucratic and centralised systems of management-rather than outcomes. If we come up with a different approach- one that asks what makes our communities safer?- then we come up with different answers. The Commission potently argues that we should localise criminal justice, encourage shifts of resource from prison to 'justice reinvestment', i.e. policies that prevent criminality on a community basis rather than simply punish it, close prisons, and deploy restorative justice more widely.

We will reduce offending, reoffending, make communities safer and increase confidence in the criminal justice system and the perception of community safety as a result. Oh, and rather than spending more and more on the costs of failure we will be investing in success. In the parsimonious fiscal times we are entering that will be critical. This is the meaning of penal restraint.

Is this all pie in the sky? Something that sounds good but doesn't work in practice? Well, it's worked in New York. Yes, you read that correctly, New York. They have reduced their prison population and closed prisons. In Canada they have reduced their prison population by 11% since 1997. In Finland they achieved the same thing after the war. In Scotland, they have just moved in the direction of the report's recommendations by introducing local Criminal Justice Authorities. In British history too we had two major periods of decarceration- 1908-1938 and the 1980s. Yes, the Thatcher government was marked by penal restraint. Amazing. Where there is political will, there is a way.

At the press launch of the report this morning, both the Minister for Prisons, Maria Eagle MP, and her Shadow, Edward Garnier QC MP, were in attendance. Hopefully, they were listening attentively. This can be done. It is a matter of speaking up to people rather than remaining slaves of opinion polls. We must begin to explain why we must reform our penal system- because it is right, because it works- and that will require both political consensus and leadership. Yes, people have to be brought along with the changes. It is up to politicians to lead; it is up to politicians to act. It is time we got over our addiction to penal excess. As Amy Winehouse didn't say: "you need to go to rehab. yes, yes, yes."
 

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