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Book Review: The penal crisis and the Clapham Omnibus: Questions and answers in restorative justice.

September 22, 2009
The first section is devoted to issues of principle.  Why is there a crisis?  It is hard to provide a constructive regime in overcrowded prisons, clogged up by short sentences for minor clapham coveroffenders which make re-offending more likely, and  unnecessarily long ones.  Cornwell argues that the basic principles for responding to crime should be to hold the offender accountable, enable (or require) him or her to make reparation for it, enable the victim to take part in this process, and enable the offender to tackle any social deficits in his/her background which push them towards crime.

The second section is about re-thinking prisons, which Cornwell vividly likens to an overloaded vehicle with neither brakes nor steering.  As a former prison governor, he is a realist, but his three-part proposal is radical.  Firstly, replace short prison sentences by community service.  This would reduce prison overcrowding, so that, secondly, prison regimes could be constructive, being based on reparation plus rehabilitation.  Thirdly, early release on parole would also be for reparation.  But the suggestion that there should be residual ‘decent but austere’ prisons for ‘hard-core’ offenders who would not co-operate (p. 152), while logical, makes one uneasy. 

Lastly, Cornwell considers how to make community sanctions both more effective and more credible.  It would require a network of community corrections centres, paid for out of savings in the prison budget.  They sound rather like the day training centres introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 1972, but with an element of reparation added to the rehabilitation.  He seems to envisage community service as mainly done in groups, with public ‘visibility’ provided by putting the supervisors in distinctive uniforms – an ingenious touch.  But there are difficulties in supervising reluctant groups (Vass 1986);  the ideal is to find tasks which they can be motivated to do, and which bring out their best qualities, such as serving lunch at an old people’s home or exercising the limbs of a spastic boy.  

Along the way, Cornwell makes some thoughtful points, which theorists too often ignore.  Justice means fairness, not just blind uniformity of treatment.  It is virtually impossible to make punishments proportionate to the harm caused by the offence (p. 214).

His argument is not ‘soft’:  ‘it is entirely reasonable to insist that those who perpetrate crime should suffer unpleasant consequences as the social response to offending behaviour’ (p. 59), but this should not be punishment for its own sake:  ‘[p]unishing such disadvantaged people time after time without addressing their social deficits is not only pointless: , it is also vindictive’ (p. 162).  He quotes Pat Carlen:  ‘the state’s right to punish rests on its contractual obligation to address the social problems that cause lawbreaking’ (p. 121).. 

Cornwell deals with several of the major objections to reducing the prison population, although not the one that says that crime in England has gone down while the prison population has gone up, therefore the former is the result of the latter. He has little to say about white collar crime;  he could have added that presumably it too is the result of faulty upbringing; and it is one of the causes of deprivation of other people;  in addition the white collars (or ‘suits’) often manage to prevent their harmful activities from being defined as crime.

He points out that restorative justice provides communication by which needs can be identified, but might have emphasised this feedback function more strongly.  Victims are considered, but the book focuses primarily on offenders.  Despite a few reservations like these, the book presents a dose of realism for advocates of restorative justice, with a down-to-earth plan for a constructive  criminal justice system which could, with some political effort, be accepted as the new commonsense. 

Cornwell, D J (2006)  Criminal punishment and restorative justice:  past, present and future perspectives.  Winchester:  Waterside Press and Portland, OR:  International Specialized Book Services.

Cornwell, D J (2007)  Doing justice better:  the politics of restorative justice.  Winchester:  Waterside Press and Portland, OR:  International Specialized Book Services.

Vass, A A (1986)  ‘Community Service: Areas of Concern and Suggestions for Change’  Howard Journal  :25  (:2) , May, 100-111.


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