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Julie Iles: Why Britain needs a restorative justice revolution

Screen shot 2010-09-29 at 15.09.06Julie Iles is a Magistrate, chair of the bench Youth Panel and "youth lead" on the Board of Surrey Crimestoppers.

 In May of this year, the prison population in England and Wales exceeded 85,000. This is a record high - and almost double the figure from when Ken Clarke was last in charge of prisons. The cost to the taxpayer per prisoner, per year is £45,000. The Justice Secretary sees no direct correlation between spiralling growth in the prison population and a fall in crime, and is known to be in favour of rehabilitation and community sentences. Dame Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, warned in her recent lecture to the Prison Reform Trust that prisons are increasingly brittle . She said they had become better places - but that progress in rehabilitating offenders was slow because of the growing prison population.

Each new prison place costs £170,000 to build and maintain.  Yet statistically prison has a poor record for reducing re-offending: almost two thirds of adult prisoners reoffend within two years of their release, and the estimated total cost of recorded crime committed by re-offenders is around £11 billion per year. These statistics alone make it clear that alternatives are needed.

The Smith Institute says that “There is far more evidence on Restorative Justice, with more positive results, than there has been for most innovations in criminal justice that have ever been rolled out across the country”. Crispin Blunt, the Prisons Minister, has said that he’s a maximalist when it comes to Restorative Justice, and that he wants to get it into our system at every stage. Its principle is to ensure that victims are at the heart of justice, and that victim involvement is maximised through restorative approaches.

Our Criminal Justice System has changed little since the 1750s, and we can still see two distinct interests being affected by a single crime. First, the State - because a crime is “breaking the Queen’s Peace”.  And second, the victim. Restorative Justice addresses the failing within this system, in which the victim can be treated as just another piece of evidence. It delivers 85% victim satisfaction, and fits with the Big Society ethos of empowering communities and individuals to find solutions. Professor Joanna Shapland’s research for the Ministry of Justice demonstrates that, through reductions in re-offending, Restorative Justice delivers £6,000 in cashable savings to Criminal Justice for every offender who takes part.

In the Youth Justice System the principal aim is to prevent offending.  A court, when dealing with a child or young person, must have regard for their welfare. Youth Conferencing, a Restorative Justice programme in Northern Ireland, demonstrated a combined reoffending rate of 38% in 2006 – compared to 52% for community sentences and 71% for custodial sentences. The Justice Minister for the Northern Ireland Assembly, David Ford, has welcomed a strong independent endorsement of the Youth Conferencing System by The Independent Commission on Youth Crime and Antisocial Behaviour, which recommends the introduction of a similar scheme in England and Wales.

Such organisations as Why me? campaign for every victim to have the right to confront their offender. The story of Will Riley and Peter Woolf’s Restorative Justice meeting, an event that changed both their lives, is re-told in Riley’s book “The Damage Done”. There are many cases in which confronting the perpetrator helps the victim to recover, and the offender is suddenly faced with the effect that their actions had on somebody else’s life. Of course not every victim will have the strength of character or the desire to participate in Restorative Justice.

Without making the system victim-centric sentencing has to be looked at in the round. Whilst most Magistrates are aware that if someone is sentenced to prison it increases their chances of re-offending this, and any costs associated with housing a prisoner, rightly do not play a part in the sentencing decision. The type of offence and its severity, the offenders’ previous history and sentencing guidelines relating to the case all factor in to the decision. There is also a view as to the main purpose of any sentence - punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence, protection of the public and reparation.

The Ministry of Justice brought out a policy paper in 2007 suggesting a form of high intensity order targeted at offenders who were at risk of entering custody for less than twelve months. This Intensive Alternatives to Custody pilot programme has been running for three years in a number of pilot areas. The target group in each area is different and the needs of the offender are recognised in the tailoring of requirements that support the order. Supervision is compulsory over its length. The behaviour of many offenders is linked to difficult backgrounds: chaotic family circumstances, mental and physical health issues, substance misuse, education and accommodation (to name but a few). 71% of young people in custody have been involved with, or in the care of, local authority social services before they are sent to Young Offender Institutions. Only by looking at the causes of crime and adopting a multi-agency approach to the interventions provided can real rehabilitation be achieved.

Real integration into society means overcoming the prejudices that ex-offenders face in securing employment. In Manchester the Intensive Alternatives to Custody has been focused on mentoring in employment training and up to 25% of the participants have found work, an excellent achievement in a recession.

These pilots come to an end in March 2011. We are all aware of the comprehensive spending review, and the Criminal Justice System will not be exempt from cuts. With a promised “sentencing and rehabilitation revolution” if viable community alternatives to custody are cheaper and more effective this revolution will perhaps happen.

Prisons are always going to be needed for the serious, the dangerous, the recidivists and those who simply will not comply with community-based sentences. But Alongside prison the public need to have confidence in alternative disposals - and measures need to be developed to ensure that such alternatives are effective, including systematic reporting and communication across probation, police, partnerships and voluntary sector organisations.


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