Opinion: A real opportunity to Make Justice Work

One of the highlights of conference for me was the breakfast roundtable organised by Make Justice Work. As conference goers and fringe organisers will know, getting one MP along is a challenge, managing to attract three must be close to a record! So it was a demonstration of the commitment our party has to reforming the criminal justice system that Justice minister Tom McNally, chair of the Justice Select Committee Alan Beith and member of the Home Affairs Select Committee Julian Huppert, all attended.

For those of you who don’t know the organisation, it was founded by Roma Hooper to campaign against the use of short sentencing and for more effective community punishments. They have just produced a report Community or Custody which is a summary of the findings of a commission they established, chaired by the Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator, Peter Oborne.

To quote Peter, when it comes to reporting on this issue:

…the debate is framed in favour of those who urge long prison sentences. There are few more damning epithets in the political lexicon than the words ‘soft’ and ‘weak’ and this accounts for a typical Westminster paradox: you have to be a very brave politician indeed to take a liberal view on crime and punishment.

– and I would add, a very brave journalist too!

The roundtable was to launch the report of the commission, which had visited projects and facilitated hearings across the country. I attend the hearing in Leicester where we heard of the work of the Criminal Justice Drugs Team which has adopted an “end-to-end” treatment model, working with offenders from their first contact with the police through to the end of their sentence.

Impressively offenders engaging in this project recorded a drop in their offending of 44% and a fall in the costs of their offending by 48%. Their peer mentoring scheme has been particularly effective, and hearing from two of the mentors, Kieran and Leroy, was not only moving, but demonstrated just how much this was a key factor in keeping them out of trouble. To quote Kieran “They did nothing with you in the prison. I came out with the same problem which was driving my offending, which was being on heroin”. We also heard from Prison Governor Peter Wright, who reminded us that while other organisations working with offenders have targets to reduce reoffending, the prisons don’t. How ridiculous is that?!

I commend the report to you; this is an issue we as Liberal Democrats can and should be united in campaigning for. I leave you with another spot-on comment from Peter Oborne:

Nobody is arguing that criminals should not go to prison, or that some of the worst offenders should not be locked up for many years. But consulting opinion pollsters is surely one of the worst imaginable methods of devising a criminal justice policy.

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One Comment

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Oct '11 - 1:18pm

    This report could scarcely have been published at a more inopportune time for those who believe in the effectiveness of community sentencing. The figures released earlier this week about the criminal histories of those involved in the August riots are a devastating indictment of non-custodial sentences.

    In summary: Two thirds of rioters had previous criminal convictions – a staggering average of 15 offences each (two thirds of them serious). Despite this, only 36% had ever seen the inside of a gaol. The other 64% had only ever received community sentences. (One can safely assume that the 36% who HAVE been to gaol have also gone through their fair share of community justic as well.)

    These figues speak for themselves. Community justice, at least as we have been practising it, is a dismal failure.

    My own view is that we are always presented with a false dichotomy between punishment and rehabilitation. Most criminals require a mix of both.

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