I’ve just received my usual daily update from the MoJ ( a great service, by the way!) and read the news of the inaugural meeting of the Criminal Justice Board (CJB).
On reading the aims of the Board, my initial reaction was that, despite the usually tiresome language of government based announcements, the focus of the Board sounded quite noble.  Then I looked again, the Board aims to ensure that the Criminal Justice System (CJS)…

  • reduces crime
  • reduces re-offending
  • punishes offenders
  • protects the public
  • makes reparation
  • improves public confidence and
  • ensures that the system is fair and just

As I said, all very noble – at least on the face of it. No mention of meeting the needs of offenders though.  No concern for mediating previous injustices, or ensuring proportionality in sentencing, or promoting the development of increasingly safe custodial settings, or redressing the fact that disproportionately higher numbers of poor people, black people and those with mental health problems find themselves in custody… I could go on.
In fairness, this was a brief announcement about a meeting and was never intended to be a detailed manifesto of action going forward.  That said, the messages relayed by such communiques are important – they help to form a sense in the public mind about what the system is for, what it aims to do and what the public can expect from it.  This in turn either confirms or challenges the views of people about the CJS on an ethical level – i.e. what should it be aiming for?  This, it seems to me, is a central issue in all the efforts to move us forward in such a way as to develop a system that can actually achieve what we now know to be the issues, rather than what we think the public wants.  A quick look at the constituent members of the Board illustrates this nicely; the announcement says that as well as Ministers, it will consist of representatives from:

  • Ministry of Justice
  • Attorney General’s Office
  • Crown Prosecution Service
  • Home Office
  • Police representatives
  • Victims’ Commissioner
  • Senior Presiding Judge

So, we have those speaking for justice, law, prosecution, reparation, policing, victims and politicians. Great, we need all those; no systemic discussion can proceed with any credibility without them.
No voices speaking up for offenders though!  No representatives from offenders’ friends and families’ organisations.  No-one speaking up for children and young people.  No penal reformers.  No HMP, YOI, STC or Secure Children Homes’ managers.  Most disturbing of all perhaps, no clinicians!  No-one who can speak on mental health, or the impact of traumatic histories on prisoners, or speech and language problems, or learning difficulties, or brain injury, or neurological impairment…  There is now a wealth of research-not to mention inquiry and other reports-on all these issues; so why does the CJB have no expert voices on these?
Once again, I suspect that we still lack the political bravery needed to make a solid, balanced, research-led, apolitical and well-argued stand, such that the CJS can be made fit for purpose.  The truth is that the political approach to crime is driven more by what politicians believe to be the public view on the issues, rather than on what rigorous criminological and psychological research tells us is actually the case – that if we assess offenders properly, target interventions at criminogenic needs and sequence these in accordance with what we know about why people offend, we will more effectively achieve the stated (though incomplete) aims of the new Criminal Justice Board.
The final challenge, of course, is that to do the job properly we’d have to spend more…on offenders!  God forbid…

© Jonny Matthew 2013