Opinion: Green Paper on Crime – “Breaking the Cycle”

The government published the Green Paper on reforming the Criminal Justice System “Breaking the Cycle” in November with most news coverage centring on proposals for “payment by results” and putting physical work apparently at the centre of prison life. However, behind the headlines this is in many ways the most thoughtful government document on crime in years, a clear move away from “Prison Works” and a return to increased professional discretion as opposed to Whitehall dictats.

The paper is not without its problems. The headline of prisoners working a forty hour week is totally unrealistic given current prison structures, issues of supervision and logistics of inmates’ movement around many establishments. With regard to payment by results the government is right to focus on outcomes above the Labour obsession on processes. However, how to measure reduced re-offending and how to do this over a period that is meaningful needs further work.

The Green Paper puts Courts back at the centre of the Justice system. This might seem an odd statement but in recent years Courts have increasingly had their hands tied. This was partly by the tide of legislation reducing their discretion and instructions from Whitehall to imprison less. In addition, Courts were restricted by a lack of capacity by Probation and other providers to deliver some forms of sentence as demand out stripped supply. Overall, the impression emerged that implementing Court Orders was less important to some providers than meeting certain centralised targets. Hopefully this is now changing.

The prison population has doubled in twenty years, in recent years funding has increased by 50% but rates of re-offending continued to rise. The Paper identifies that locking more people up only provides temporary respite to communities and instead accelerates a cycle of re-offending. This does not make communities safer. The focus of policy is changed from managing a prison crisis to taking steps to instead reduce re-offending rates. The key to the change is reversing the tide of centralisation and control over professionals who work with offenders and releasing them to actually use their skills and experience. The quality of offender engagement in courses and supervision is far more important than throughput or that particular processes have been followed.

A further welcome change is recognition that punishment should begin and end with the Criminal Justice System. Therefore, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is identified as long overdue for review as the current law on disclosure of convictions presents considerable barriers to individuals gaining employment. Of course some occupations will always require rigorous background checks and the likewise the most serious types of offence should never be “spent” but present thresholds are too low. An additional proposal is that juvenile convictions (except for serious offences) should automatically become “spent” when a person reaches eighteen.

For the first time a government has proposed that in appropriate cases “restorative justice is a fundamental part of the sentencing process”, setting a tone quite different from the tough talking of recent years. Many parts of this Green paper represent a welcome liberal step in Criminal Justice. Indeed, the first liberal step in many years.

Dan Roper was the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in the Broadland constituency and works as a Senior Probation Officer and Public Protection Manager at two prisons. The Green Paper is subject to public consultation until the 4th March 2011.

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  • Keith Browning 6th Jan '11 - 7:34pm

    Just been mentioned on the BBC Portillo Railway Journey program that the incidence of pick pocketing in London rocketed after the death penalty for the offence was removed in 1803.

  • What a ridiculous thing to say, Keith. Even if it could be demonstrated beyond a doubt that re-introducing the death penalty for murder would reduce the murder rate, no liberal worth his or her salt would support its re-introduction. If you’re suggesting that altering the sentences for crimes will lead to a surge in their being committed, then where’s the evidence? What I, and Ken Clarke as well it seems, see is a prison policy where vast numbers of people are incarcerated who then, invariably, re-offend upon their release. Our prison system is not working and we finally have a Justice Secretary who doesn’t see simply piling the prisons with more people as the solution.

    I think the Green Paper is the most insightful we’ve seen on criminal justice for years and much of it chimes with Liberal Democrat policy. This is something we can, and should, throw our weight behind. For those Lib Dems who are considering joining Labour as the ‘progressive’ party, just look at their record on criminal justice and see how authoritarian and reactionary it was.

  • Patrick Smith 6th Jan '11 - 9:53pm

    The bar is raised by this insightful piece, asking if `Prison works’ and if it does not, what,how and when is the `Coalition Government’ intending to respond? This `Green Paper’ is a positive statement and is asking the right questions.

    There is a rising tide of broken lives being wasted, including both victim and criminal offender and thrusting the thousands of families tainted by crime, each day into dispair and often permanent moral ruin.

    1 in 2 offenders are repeating the same crimes on the same victims on release from 6 month prison sentences.

    There has to be a new way forward to separate out those young offenders seeking an escape from an apprenticeship in crime by the very existence of overcrowded and sometimes understaffed prisons?

    Clearly two salient endemic problems place potential and proven offenders at even greater risk of entry and then staying on a ladder of crime throughout their life.

    First, the close link with drugs and that addictive process, that comes when crimes are committed to fuel the dependency and second that over 50% of young offenders have poorer literacy and numeracy skills than average..

    The `Green Paper’ has many merits for the widest debate and all practitioners including probation officers offenders and victims and victims` families on both sides of the janus coin of crime must be involved in discussion and agreement.

    All interested and impacted focus groups must be consulted on how to reduce the escalating re-offending and social cost to community values.

    There has to be a new programmes of vocational training and education available to offenders whilst in prison and young offenders detention centres and community programmes form part of this and young offender courts.

    Ther has to be new emphasis on a personal restorative justice code embracing a stronger moral teaching that places the victims of crimes at the centre, as it they who suffer most and all too often live blighted lives, as a result of reckless acts of criminality.

  • Just coming back to Keith and Nich – the Green paper makes no reference to any so-called “deterrent effect” in sentencing. Length or severity of sentence is not considered to be a factor that reduces longer term re-offending rates. This realism is another welcome departure from Labour’s failed Criminal Justice policies.

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