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UK Coalition: A revolution in justice?

July 4, 2010

The victim in any crime is – before anything else – a witness in the Crown’s drive to secure a conviction. The offence is committed against the state.  Guilt is established in an adversarial court of law.  Incarceration is the ultimate sanction, and success comes when another villain is taken off the streets.

But there is another way of viewing justice, which sees crime not primarily as something committed against the state, but as a breakdown of relationship. The response it to try and put things right again – as much as is possible. Under such principles, a new way of thinking opens up with regard to reparations, a more central role for victims of crime and alternatives to prison.

This more restorative approach has been trialled in various contexts over the last decade. The main problem is that it has been an “add-on” to the existing system, rather than something which has been allowed to shape it. It has however had significant success where it has been tried at all stages in the system from prevention before a crime is committed, to dealing with the consequences of crime.

….In his speech Clarke set out his three priorities as: punishing offenders, protecting the public and providing access to justice. His strategy is in effect more of the same old system, with a lot more emphasis on rehabilitation and community sentences, rather than any substantive move toward a restorative approach.

Which is a great shame. Because in the same speech he accepts that in civil law – specifically family cases – that what he himself calls “the traditional adversarial system” may not be best for the parties involved.  This does beg the question why he continues to be so wedded to the retributive model for criminal law?

Clarke states unequivocally that he believes sentencing should be based on “principles of retribution, reflection of public anger and the effective prevention of further crime”.
So this is not a watershed moment. This is a small change of direction, but not a U-turn. The ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ is preparing the way for cost cutting, but isn’t a Justice Revolution. It is an attempt to patch up an old, and failing system. And so we are likely to see little change in the dissatisfaction for the victims of crime and the wider fear of crime. There may be a small drop in re-offending rates. We will however see some large cuts in the prison population – and of course overall investment in prisons and criminal justice as a whole.

Read the whole entry.


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