Bring the outs in

The liberals will no longer stay silent. Jack O' Sullivan reports on a conference that challenges the hardliners

As Michael Howard and Jack Straw compete to sound the most punitive, this might seem an ill-chosen moment for liberal reformers to clear their throats. Better, one might think, to stay silent, and hope that Mr Straw will calm down after 1 May, when, if he takes the helm at Queen Anne's Gate, he might begin to shed his macho image. But at a major one-day conference tomorrow on "The Criminal Justice System: Designing the Future", leading thinkers opposing today's "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach will point a different way.

"We will be challenging the all-powerful legal system which thinks that it is the only legitimate way to deal with crime," says Charmian Bollinger, a clinical and forensic psychologist, the conference chair. "These days we understand so much more about how people are motivated, think and feel, we should be redesigning the criminal justice system in a way that reflects that knowledge." So the most important action the system could take against an offender might be, for example, to find him or her a job. "I have found in dealings with some violent men, that their problem is sexual impotence, which undermines their self-esteem. Therapy has solved the problem."

Ms Bollinger has powerful allies in thinking afresh about the value of old-fashioned punitive justice. Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, chair of Victim Support, will argue that the present approach often fails even in its narrow tasks of catching criminals and discerning the truth about particular criminal events. Barbara Hudson, reader in criminology at Northumbria University, will warn against punishing people for offences they have not even committed (local publication of the names of convicted paedophiles or burglars might, for example, fit that category). Estela Welldon, consultant psychiatrist at the Portman Clinic, argues in favour of psychoanalytic methods in helping offenders to understand their responsibilities to others. Punishment, she contends is often of little value to people who may already been severely punished in their lives.

Charles Pollard, Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, will warn against following the United States model of mass incarceration. He has helped pioneer alternatives to criminal proceedings. For example, the "caution plus" system brings young offenders and their parents to police stations and encourages discussions about crime including meetings with victims, so that an offender can understand the effects of his actions. The scheme has reduced recidivism.

But the key speaker at the conference, at Wolfson College, Oxford, will be David Faulkner, who, as a senior Home Office civil servant, was the architect of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act. As both a thinker and a civil servant, his work confounds popular suspicion that the Home Office has long been stuffed with anti-liberal hardliners. The 1991 legislation dramatically shrank the prison population before the backlash led by Michael Howard raised it to the present record levels. The 1991 Act required judges to jail an individual only if the offence was so serious that no other option would suffice. Its short-lived spirit resulted in the judiciary thinking imaginatively about alternatives to imprisonment.

Mr Faulkner, now a Fellow of St John's College, Oxford, says reform of the criminal justice system should be based on evidence of what works rather than what appeals to Sun readers. He contrasts the past few years with the 1980s which were, he says, "a period in which there was, by and large, a serious attempt to construct policies towards crime and criminal justice within a framework of evidence and principle".

The 1990s, he says, have been characterised by an "exclusive" view of society, which distinguishes between the "deserving majority", which needs to be protected from the "undeserving, feckless minority", who must be excluded and in many cases incarcerated. A reformed and effective justice system would, he says, reflect an "inclusive" notion of society. "It recognises the capacity and will of individuals to change, to improve if they are given guidance, help and encouragement; to be damaged if they are abused or humiliated."

Mr Faulkner sees an ideological battle taking place between the exclusionists, who dominate the present parliament's programme of criminal punishment, demonisation of children, hostility to single parents and refugees, and inclusionists who are talking increasingly of citizenship and civic responsibility. It is too early, he says, to know which approach will triumph.

"A move to a more inclusive approach could be linked to a New Labour programme or even to a One Nation Conservative programme. At the moment, there is not much inclusive language in what Jack Straw says, although you can hear it in his talk of supporting families and early intervention when things start to go wrong"

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