Lord Chancellor & Secretary of State for Justice

Kenneth Clarke, Ministry of Justice,

 

RE: PUNISHMENT & REFORM: EFFECTIVE COMMUNITY SENTENCES

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the Ministry of Justice proposals for reforming Britain’s sentencing structures. My organisation’s detailed response is attached to this letter, which aims to summarise our key points.

We appreciate your commitment to improve the criminal justice system, and your acknowledgement for the need to find innovative, cost-effective, evidence-based solutions to crime.  IARS’ mission is to give everyone a chance to forge a safer, fairer and more inclusive society. Therefore, we remain committed to supporting you in your efforts to create a more effective justice system that responds to the needs of its users.

I remain concerned with the increased level and grounds of justification for the punitive approach that is being promoted. While you acknowledge that incapacitation is not working, the consultation document proceeds with proposal for an array of harsher sentencing measures. Your Foreword’s opening statement reads: “An effective criminal justice system should punish law breakers and protect the law-abiding”. Our position is that an effective criminal justice system should restore the harm caused and provide meaningful and measurable opportunities to all parties to participate in justice processes.

Victims & users: community-led criminal justice policy

There is a growing body in the literature, which argues that to construct successful and innovate criminal justice policies and practices, the user must be involved. The available research data also suggests that user-led (e.g. victim-led) RJ programmes tend to have higher rates of success and better outcomes for all. We remain doubtful as to the extent that current policy reflects the views and realities of its users. IARS and many other community-based think-tanks exist to broker relationships between government and users. There is little evidence that these networks and partnerships are being utilised appropriately, while there is still suspicion about user-led research. Further reforms to the criminal justice system that are not community-led and evidence-based will continue the vicious circle of ineffectiveness and high spending.

Restorative Justice (RJ)

When promoting RJ as a mainstream policy and practice, care needs to be taken. This relates both to evidence and the particular nature of the RJ notion and practices. A government funded 2007 report noted: “The evidence on RJ is far more extensive, and positive, than it has been for many other policies that have been rolled out nationally. RJ is ready to be put to far broader use” (Sherman and Strang 2007:  4). Therefore, I am very pleased to see some progress in using RJ appropriately both within and outside the criminal justice system.

However, I am seriously concerned with the confusion that seems to exist in the role that government and certain organisations have taken in their efforts to promote RJ. As a grass roots movement, RJ finds its strengths in communities and it is most effective at a local level. It is driven by its passionate practitioners and it works well when it is initiated by victims and the parties involved. I appreciate the well-intended initiatives to mainstream RJ, but as research and leading experts in the field have pointed out, these cannot interfere with the nature and heart of RJ (e.g. see Braithwaite 2002; Johnstone 2012). For example, attempts to legislate for compulsory RJ have proved in other countries to be counterproductive. Likewise, the establishment of monopoly- motivated, top-down registers have proved to limit RJ provision. There is strong evidence that standardisation of RJ hinders innovation and interferes with its principles, processes and structures. I strongly agree that quality and standards must be maintained and that all parties need to be protected. RJ is not a soft option and the evidence has shown that it can expose both victims and offenders to danger and trauma. Research has indicated that to address this, in-built evaluation, self-evaluation and auditing have to be supported and acknowledged as the only safe RJ practice.

We are also concerned with the approach that has been adopted in relation to RJ’s implementation in prisons (post sentencing) and pre-sentence. In 2011, we published “Restorative Justice & the Secure Estate” . This was based on the 3 year EU funded MEREPS programme. It put forward recommendations for a national RJ strategy within the secure estate and pointed out a number of pitfalls and enablers. Top down structures that encourage a monopoly in the provision of frontline and infrastructure services will lead RJ to its demise.

One of the most consistent findings of our research highlighted the need for maintaining the RJ ethos. It is likely that if RJ projects and their evaluation continue to be funded based on political and punitive priorities, then this ethos will be skewed and possibly merged with the retributive and utilitarian objectives of the traditional criminal justice system. The example of Belgium which introduced training and “RJ consultants” in every prison should be looked at as it failed to provide long lasting solutions. Other international examples (e.g. Canada, US, South Africe, Australia) must be consulted.

The voluntary & community sector (VCS)

Continued budgetary pressure is forcing a rethink of how justice services are delivered. At the same time the policy and political community is also called to respond to new trends of anti-social behaviour. Moving quickly, flexibly and innovatively within the civil service and public sector service provision is not easy hence the increased attention that has been given to community-based criminal justice services. Therefore, we were pleased to see your intentions to support the VCS in taking a more active role. The truth is, however, that the extant literature does not reflect the breadth of innovation and indeed the various practice models that come under the banner of RJ. Statutory services have to rely on VCS groups to publicise, disseminate and share best practices. Knowledge about the VCS’ role in crime control is principally based on anecdotal evidence and only rarely are scientific studies published on its contribution and evaluation. The infrastructure for developing such knowledge is absent while academia itself needs to develop its thinking even further in the development of clearer goals of research for RJ. Further supports needs to be given to VCS independent research organisations that have the trust of communities and can give them voice through robust research methods that are user-led and peer reviewed.

Balancing competing interests

Our research has repeatedly raised concerns around the factors that drive social policy and criminal justice reform. As the world economic downturn is impacting on criminal justice policy and practice, the need for an evidence-based approach becomes even more apparent.

Claims that RJ is a cheaper option must be balanced against the scant available data. RJ has to convince on two fronts. First, it must show that it provides better justice for the parties involved; this will need to be cheaper and more adaptive to the needs and current realities of our times. Second, that while doing so, it places public protection at the heart of its practices.

I have argued elsewhere (Gavrielides 2005; 2007; 2008; 2012) that the RJ movement has its own power struggles to face. This is now becoming s real danger in the UK and we have evidence to believe that government has played a key role in encouraging these tensions. Bridges must be built between government and RJ practitioners but not through consultants and third parties. Relationships have to be built from the bottom up and through direct contact with RJ practitioners most of whom are volunteers.

IARS is currently working with 12 other EU based universities to construct a pan-European RJ strategy. I have discussed this with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board. Our offer to share our findings is still open.

IARS will be holding its annual conference on 26 September titled “Talking from evidence: What the community wants from the criminal justice system”. There, we will launch our new research on RJ and riots as well as a book on what women offenders with mental health challenges need from the police. Further information is available on our website.

Your response will be much appreciated by IARS and its members. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Theo Gavrielides

IARS Founder & Director

The full version of IARS consultation response can be found here.