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Christian Guy: David Cameron's speech yesterday may be the crucial step to making the justice system fit for purpose

Guy christianChristian Guy is Managing Director for the Centre for Social Justice.  Follow Christian on Twitter.

Six years ago David Cameron came to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) as Leader of the Opposition to deliver a radical speech on the causes of crime.

The address should have been remembered as a landmark moment for the Conservative Party – a time when a commitment to tackle Britain’s most acute social problems was put firmly at its heart. Instead, the speech is recalled for "hug a hoodie" – a misrepresentation that unfortunately stuck and undermined its key messages.

But what the Tory leader said back in 2006 remains the same today. If we want to get to grips with crime – if we want to mend our broken society – we have to look at its root causes; we have to commit to social reform. Our reoffending rates in England and Wales are appalling: a staggering two thirds of inmates serving sentences of a year or less are reconvicted within two years of release. 

Under the stewardship of Ken Clarke as Justice Secretary, things started to move in the right direction with the Coalition adopting the "rehabilitation revolution" mantra. But we all know there is a long road ahead in this journey, and that is why David Cameron’s speech at the CSJ yesterday should be widely welcomed.

We have always been clear that there needs to be robust punishment for those who offend, but a much more thoughtful approach to how we deal with offenders once they are in custody has been shamefully neglected in the past.

The CSJ has worked with leading criminal justice experts and charities helping those trapped in the revolving door cycle since its inception. This has led us to writing reports on an array of subjects - rehabilitation, reoffending, addiction and domestic abuse – which have helped frame the debate around criminal justice. In our landmark report Breakthrough Britain – which formed the basis of much Conservative social policy – we argued that if you want to cut crime you have to look at its root causes: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependency, addiction and unmanageable personal debt.

The PM’s speech yesterday acknowledged the need we set out to take a fresh and bold approach to criminal justice. And while it is highly refreshing to hear the Government talk about reform in such detail, it is clear several questions still need to be answered around implementation of the proposals.

The announcement of a payment-by-results system that will see a range of non–government organisations paid if they successfully rehabilitate prisoners is an exciting development – one modelled on the Government's scheme to get long–term unemployed people back into work. The principle here is excellent, but a number of issues need ironing out. For example, how do we define success in the criminal justice system?

We know also that, without help, it may be difficult for charities and social enterprises to operate in this environment – many small or medium-sized organisations will struggle to work for six months or a year without being paid.

But if concerns like these can be overcome, yesterday’s speech may be another one we talk about in the years to come – it may be remembered as the crucial step a government took in finally creating a justice system fit-for-purpose. A system dedicated to improving lives and giving people caught up in crime and social breakdown the tools to escape.


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