Julian Huppert MP writes… Community sentencing and restorative justice

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

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  • Don’t forget the LGA LIb Dem “Good practice” guide on crime and community safety can be found here:

  • Richard Dean 23rd Oct '12 - 6:57pm

    A 14% reduction in frequency of reoffending is better than nothing, but still not all that good. In a way it suggests that in 86% of cases we might achieve useful results by throwing away the key. Is any research being done to find out what the causes of criminal behaviours are? Are there any other strategies with a better success rate?

  • Neville Farmer 23rd Oct '12 - 7:14pm

    Excellent piece, Julian. Annoying to see Nick Robinson’s flip comment that you’d never usually see a politician advocating rehabilitation as part of a crime policy yesterday. It’s about time someone took him on one side and explained the Liberal Democrats to him as he doesn’t seem to think we exist or know what our policies are.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Oct '12 - 8:07pm

    A statistic is not a cause of crime.

    For example, what does it mean that half of crime is “drug related”? Lots of smugglers? Cause greed? Lots of addicts? Cause something to do with fitting into society? Lots of murderous crack fiends? Cause cruelty in childhood?

    How can the care system be improved? What is it in that system that makes children more likely to end up in prison? Can we find that cause and fix it?

    Almost everyone has a mental health problem at some time in their life, and personally I’d end up with one if I was locked up in a cell for any length of time. Is mental ill health a cause of crime, or a consequence of correction?

  • Nigel Jones 23rd Oct '12 - 9:49pm

    Great piece from Julian, but clearly this is just a start. The main point Julian makes is that the aim of the justice system is to reduce crime. Punishment has a part to play and of course, due to human failings, there will always be those who we must keep separate from society in order to protect people from them and we must improve what we do with such people.
    Punishment, as you say, is not an aim in itself and in any case, like discipline in all areas of life, it is only truly effective in an environment of care.
    Only this summer, we heard how a Christian pastor in south London, Mimi Asher, dissolved a violent gang by befriending and caring for them. Karl Lokko, the gang leader now earns a living through music and helps Kids Company care forchildren. Karl wrote in the Independent that he had broken the law, but was changed not by punishment but by the loving care of the pastor and others. This may be an outstanding case, but it points the way and Karl himself wrote in the same Independent article that whatever is done to help young people out of crime, it must be done in an environment of love.
    Cllr. Nigel Jones
    Newcastle under Lyme

  • Richard Dean 23rd Oct '12 - 11:25pm

    Linda, what a lot of interesting information!

    Let’s start with literacy and numeracy. How would this be addressed in Huppert’s proposals? Could judges sentence people to learn to read up to a certain standard? Should we reorganize our physical world so that reading is not so necessary? We already do this to some extent in things like traffic signs and computer icons.

    Let’s also be a bit realistic. Decriminalising something may cut the crime statistics, but it doesn’t solve the actual problem does it? And if I’m an addict, decriminalising me might not do much to stop me stealing to feed my habit. Getting me to face the victims of my theft might help, but not restorative justice – I’d end up stealing from a new Peter to pay a wronged Paul.

    Let’s also be a bit careful about using sequences of labels to condemn people. It sounds clever to say that crime correlates with exclusion which correlates with behaviour that correlates with mental health or learning difficulties, but that’s equivalent to labelling criminals as biologically defective! Family environment, relation with parent, and society’s skills in preparing people to be parents, may be rather more important. So in relation to the Huppert proposals, should we have judges sentencing people to periods of motherly love, or heart to heart talks with father?

    Good luck!

  • I was very pleased to hear much of what Cameron announced the other day.

    Richard, RJ is not an alternative sentence to locking people up. It is an additional measure which reduces re-offending by 14% and can have profoundly positive impacts upon the victim.

    For me I think we have to introduce an element of thanks to community sentencing. I worry that community sentences are seen as chores done as punishment or even state-sanctioned slavery by those carrying them out. Surely they’d be more effective in changing behaviour if communities thanked offenders for the good deeds they had carried out for no financial reward. If they experience gratitude and are offered the opportunity to continue to receive gratitude through volunteering then they might be transformed by the realisation that they can be a productive positive force in the community rather than a negative, destructive one.

    We have to offer people paths out of destructive behaviour. Not all will take them, but a good many will if we only have the political courage to offer them.

    It would certainly take political courage to say in our manifesto. “We’re going to cut police numbers by 10,000 because we’re going to deploy the smart on crime policies that mean we won’t need as many to clean up after society’s failures.

  • Alex Matthews 24th Oct '12 - 10:29am

    “Let’s also be a bit realistic. Decriminalising something may cut the crime statistics, but it doesn’t solve the actual problem does it? And if I’m an addict, decriminalising me might not do much to stop me stealing to feed my habit. Getting me to face the victims of my theft might help, but not restorative justice – I’d end up stealing from a new Peter to pay a wronged Paul.”

    This is a big point, many people forget that less people being charged with an offence does mean that less people are committing it, and legalisation often falls under this banner. The same number of people or more still commit the act, they police just no longer charge them for it. There are arguments for legalisation (though they not as pervasive or conclusive as many like to make out), but this is not one of them.

    Ewan, that is a great story and we need more of the papers publishing things like that if we want to persuade the hang and flog em society.

  • @ Richard

    And if I’m an addict, decriminalising me might not do much to stop me stealing to feed my habit.

    Agreed, but decriminalising the substance you’re addicted to might make it easier for you to get help with your addiction before you start stealing to feed it. Especially if we provide extra rehab funding out of the money currently spent on pointless police and court time dealing with people whose “crime” is just to ingest a substance we disapprove of. Anyway, we wouldn’t be decriminalising theft so if you did steal to fund your habit you would still be arrested (if caught, obviously!), same as if you stole in order to buy a new iPhone or large screen TV.

    @ Ewan

    Surely they’d be more effective in changing behaviour if communities thanked offenders for the good deeds they had carried out for no financial reward.

    This is an excellent idea, though I can just imagine the Sun headline if any politician announces it!

    I think one of the problems we have communicating a liberal crime policy effectively is that we don’t place enough emphasis on future victims, allowing victims’ groups and hardliners to monopolise the rhetoric of being on the side of victims against criminals. We need to argue more forcefully that the best way of championing victims is by preventing new ones from being created, which means pursuing whatever policies the evidence shows are effective regardless how soft they are.

  • Jonathan Clennell 24th Oct '12 - 1:02pm

    My first post. As a former Probation Officer, reading Julian Huppert’s posting gives me a sense of ‘deja vu’. My colleagues & I were publicly & professionally talking along these lines 30-40 years ago! Has any politician ever got up & run with this? The punitiveness in our society, fostered considerably by the media, was the basis of my decision to join the Service & latterly the Liberal Democrats, in order to help make an alternative CJ intervention really work.
    Since the 1980s, the Service has been subjected to extensive denigration in the Press, despite, for example. being the founding driver behind the Victim Support Schemes & Restorative Justice projects, established across England & Wales . Even worse in practical terms have been the savage budget cuts over this period, plus the unbelievable number of major re-organisations & massive over-spends on non-functioning computerisation schemes. So, this vast body of experience, expertise & personal commitment will be wasted, unless realistic budgets & sensible management structures are restored. Get in there Julian & mass the ranks behind you.

  • “And if I’m an addict, decriminalising me might not do much to stop me stealing to feed my habit.”

    Surely it would reduce the cost of your addiction?

  • Richard Dean 24th Oct '12 - 3:08pm

    How so? And would this be a good thing – might it not increase the number of people able to start on the road to becoming an addict?

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