Our country’s relentless focus on punishment for punishment’s sake, rather than as a tool for crime reduction and rehabilitation, has consigned thousands of individuals to a hopeless life with no way out. A staggering 90% of those sentenced in England and Wales in 2011 had committed a previous offence.
Even in the best of circumstances – where criminals are caught, trials are fair and judges pass sentence – prisoners aren’t rehabilitated; victims remain unfulfilled and citizens are rightly angered.
On top of all this, it costs the state £40,000 to put a person in prison for under 12 months. And, after all this spending, 45% of these inmates will reoffend within a year.
Liberal Democrats have long argued that the British criminal justice system is in need of root and branch reform. But, unlike the other two parties, we’ve always had clear solutions, based on the evidence.
At our last Conference, for example, we called for a presumption in favour of robust community sentences and restorative justice against ineﬀective and costly short sentences of up to six months.
Today, we are delivering these in Government.
Community sentences have long been one part of our package of reforms. Often at a lower cost, they can reduce reoffending, and visible community sentences ensure that justice is seen to be done – a key tenet of a liberal justice system.
Unfortunately, when community sentences were first introduced, they were done more as a cost-cutting measure than as a means to deliver justice and rehabilitation.
We are changing that. From now on community sentences will be a serious alternative to short term sentences. In some cases they were seen as tokenistic. We have to make sure judges will feel comfortable using them in place of short-term sentences.
The Tories, no doubt, will spin this as a toughening up, and Labour will present it as a weakening. The only way to be ‘tough’ on crime is to stop crime from happening, which is exactly what our community orders will do.
The second part of today’s strategy is about Restorative Justice (RJ). In my view, this is absolutely critical, and a massive ‘win’ for the liberal approach to justice.
Countless studies have shown that, for a whole range of crimes, where criminals face their victims in a secure and controlled environment it reduces reoffending. In the recent Government pilot there was an estimated 14% reduction in the frequency of reoffending. Best of all, it also has far better victim satisfaction – up to 85% – than prison sentences, community orders or any other policy we’ve found.
Our reforms will mean that, after a person has been convicted, both victims and offenders will be given a right to request RJ before a sentence is passed.
RJ only takes place where victim and offender agrees to it; the session takes place with trained RJ specialists; it does not automatically affect the sentence which is ultimately passed (that’s still left to the courts) and the Coalition is already investing £1.5 million to put the necessary infrastructure in place.
Under RJ, criminals understand the consequences of their actions. Put simply, it cuts crime, improves lives and reduces costs.
Of course these measures have to be part of broader reforms. Prisons need to change and those who have paid their dues have to be given the opportunity to reintegrate into society.
We’ve already moved in that direction: changes to treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, expansion of Neighbourhood Resolution Panels and our strategy for women offenders.
But from today the headline reforms are in place: robust community sentencing and restorative justice to reduce reoffending.
For once, liberal sense is prevailing in the justice system. I hope we can build on it.
* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15