The criminal justice system

The prison population in the UK is higher than in most western European countries, yet we have one the highest crime rates. Given what we know about prisons - the ultimate social exclusion - it is not unlikely that the crime rate is partly because of the large numbers processed in the schools for crime. Most hardened criminals are hardened in prison. The younger they are when locked up, the more they re-offend. Crime reduction belongs in social policy, not in more and more prisons.

The criminal process should therefore focus on each individual case, and in particular on the restoration of the victim's well being, as far as that is possible. Many victims have said that they would like the chance to tell the offender the effects of their actions, and to ask questions that only they can answer. The offender can be given the opportunity to apologise, and to show that it is meant, by making reparation. The reparation could consist of compensation, repairing damage or community service - not in a degrading sort though.

But what many victims have said to want is that the offender should actively try to improve their chances of not re-offending, through skills, courses, literacy, numeracy or drug treatment programmes. The compensation, repairing damage and community sentencing are all a form of non-custodial sentencing. The problem with this non-custodial approach, known as 'restorative justice' is that 'will it work? ' It has now been tried in many western countries, and even where it produced no change in reconvictions, it is considered worthwhile for the sake of improved treatment of victims.

Admittedly it will not be suitable in every case, but in New Zealand, which has pioneered it for about 10 years for all juvenile offences except homicide, research has shown reduced re-offending. Public opinion, despite stereotypes to the contrary, favours non-custodial measures more than prison; the 1998 British Crime Survey found that victims were two to one in favour of them for crimes like burglary and mugging. Many people like reparative measures, and the thought of an offender being sent to prison can deter some victims from reporting crimes.

Prison should be seen as a place of last resort within the criminal justice system, used only to detain individuals whose offending is so serious or so persistent that there can be no alternative to custody. Instead the Prison Service, uniquely unable to exclude anyone, acts as a catchall for the failure of other public services. Rising numbers of prisoners are more a reflection of tougher sentencing than of increased crime. This crisis seems to have been caused in part by the impact of the hard-line two strikes ruling for those in breach of community orders.

The implications for public safety of prison overcrowding are not fully understood. Of the nearly 73,000 people in custody, under 50 are serving whole life tariffs and will never come out. The rest will have to resettle in society having had little, or no, help to do so. Prisons are being turned back into human warehouses. Re-offending rates are already appalling with over 70% of young offenders reconvicted within two years of release. Prison should be avoided if possible because is reduces employability, renders significant numbers homeless, exacerbates mental health problems and shatters links with family and friends.

Ministers and officials must look beyond prison to vigorous, confident and sustained promotion of community penalties. Government should call on health and social services to take primary responsibility for work with mentally ill offenders, as well as fast tracking addicted offenders to detoxification and treatment services in the community. Support for vulnerable families could be increased and schools must be asked to engage their students and to take more responsibility for reducing re-offending.

Changes in the sentencing framework should include the use of community sentences, along with intensive supervision and restorative justice elements, for short prison sentences. The needless use of custodial remand and the delays in processing cases can also be eliminated. Of the 13,000 unsentenced prisoners in jail, 60% will not go on to receive a custodial sentence. Intensive good quality bail support schemes can be a preferable option. However, feelings about non-custodial sentences tend to be negative for two main reasons.

Firstly, the range of options it covers renders it weak next to the simple and powerful symbol of prison. Secondly, non-custodial penalties have a soft image, for example community service has a 'criminals getting away with it by doing a bit of gardening' feel to it. But community service also has the emotionally satisfying symmetry of making offenders put back into the community what they have taken out. Some of the other non-custodial sentences such as curfew and tagging are quite new and therefore less familiar.

However, thinking about them, the idea of restricting liberty and privileges, as well as the capacity to impact on an offender in a personally meaningful way can be seen as a welcomed idea. Non-custodial sentences can fulfil for the public important symbolic and emotional functions; they can embarrass and shame (the youngster curfewed in the house: the hard man picking up litter in the park) and are able to offer a 'second chance' to offenders to prove, and improve themselves. Widespread and high quality provision of non-custodial sentencing options is a possibility, but it has to be backed by the resources to make this happen.

The debate on whether prison works or not is facile, because if it is to work in society's best interest, it is imperative that only those that really need to be locked up, are. Custodial sentencing have been the major form of sentencing in our criminal justice system and with the continuing rise of the prison population, lack of funding and care of the prisons, prisoners and victims and the increasing reconviction rates, there is a good argument for a change in the sentencing framework.