John Hayward Posted: 5 November 2009
Keywords: Crime & Justice,
An independent study published today by Victims’ Champion Sara Payne calls on the government to 'redefine' justice to give greater priority to victims of crime. The mother of Sarah Payne, who was murdered by a paedophile in 2000, writes, 'The most compelling theme throughout my time as Victims' Champion has been the need to treat victims and witnesses as individuals, with individual needs.'
Most people think of criminal justice in terms of offenders being apprehended by the police, convicted by the courts, and sentenced to prison. At a time when the prison population is greater than ever (it presently stands at 84,622), perhaps that is unsurprising. The truth, however, is just three per cent of people who report a crime ever see a courtroom. What does justice mean for these people?
At its heart, Redefining Justice asserts that victims are individuals and need joined-up support across health, education, housing and social services, as well as the criminal justice system (CJS). It observes that 'Redefining justice to meet the needs of victims will often go beyond the CJS to areas where no existing code or pledge is in place.' The truth is that we would do well to redefine justice in even more radical ways.
For a start, we need to reconnect crime control and criminal justice with broader themes of social justice and social reconstruction. Many of those caught up in the system are people whom the criminal justice process is ill-equipped to deal with: for instance, it is estimated that 47 per cent of male sentenced prisoners ran away from home as a child; 49 per cent were excluded from school; 72 per cent suffer from two or more mental disorders; 66 per cent used drugs in the previous year; and 67 per cent were unemployed prior to their imprisonment. Biblically, these are people who deserve compassion not vengence; for them retribution brings not justice but further injustice.
What's more, over the past 20-30 years we've increasingly drifted to a position in which it is assumed that the State is best placed to deliver criminal justice. Again, biblically, this is a mistake. The criminal justice process can by itself have only a limited effect on the general level of crime. Justice should be a community responsibility, bringing with it community obligations. If citizens, local communities and courts are to exercise these, then the State needs to devolve responsibility and give us all a greater role in securing justice. By renewing civic society, we might well expect to find crime being dealt with more effectively. Again, such action is far beyond the scope and capacity of the statutory criminal justice agencies.
As we have noted previously, in contrast with the trend of 64 per cent of prisoners who are reconvicted within two years of being released, another government report into restorative justice schemes last year found that 'offenders who participated in restorative justice committed statistically significantly fewer offences (in terms of reconvictions) in the subsequent two years than offenders in the control group.'
Justice is a major biblical theme - it seems we still have so much to learn, if only we would read it afresh. It is not just victims and witnesses, but also offenders that we need to treat as individuals, with individual needs - a point highlighted all the more by figures today showing that most young offenders have no suitable accommodation to go to after they are released from custody, with up to a quarter becoming technically homeless and many ending up on the streets, greatly increasing the risks that they will commit another crime.