Archbishop Desmond Tutu called last night for a new approach to penal policy in Britain in an attempt to ease the pressure on "overcrowded" jails.
He made an impassioned plea for the desire for revenge and retribution which, he said, drives criminal justice systems around the world, to be replaced by an approach based on forgiveness and reconciliation.
Delivering the Longford Lecture, sponsored by The Independent, the Emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town said: "It is an incontrovertible fact that the penal systems of most countries have failed to stem the tide of recidivism. The first-time offender who is sent to prison for his crime is as likely as anything going to end up being a repeat offender: harsh sentences designed to be only punitive are turning out to be quite costly.
"Prisons are overcrowded. In this country of yours, they have been sentencing motorists to prison for motoring offences in a bid to deter others. It does not seem to be working and there are now all kinds of suggestions about how to reduce the prison population, including avoiding custodial sentences for motoring offences."
Archbishop Tutu drew on the example of South Africa, where he headed the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to argue the case for "restorative justice", in which offenders and victims are brought together.
"Restorative justice gives up on no one. No one is a totally hopeless and irredeemable case. We all remain the children of God, even the worst of us. We all, even the worst of us, retain the capacity to become saints." The controversial principle - based on the premise "that people retained the capacity to change, that enemies could become friends" - had helped avert a "catastrophe of monumental proportions" in his home country, he said.
In reference to Britain, the Archbishop added: "It may be prudent to see what it can do to redeem a penal system that clearly is not delivering the goods. It does seem as if in this case as well there is no future without forgiveness, for forgiveness means the offended being willing to give the offender another chance."
His wide-ranging attack, reported in The Independent yesterday, on the "immoral" war waged by Britain and the United States in Iraq won two rounds of applause from his audience in Church House, Westminster.
Asked after his speech how he would use his experiences in South Africa to tackle the crisis in the Middle East, he insisted the situation was not all "doom and gloom". Citing examples of groups working together across the Israeli-Palestinian divide, he said: "If it is in fact possible for these people to reach out to one another across this chasm then there is hope."
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, the co-organiser of the event, said: "As our prison numbers soar, Desmond Tutu's message is clear: it's time to make amends. Restorative, not retributive justice, will cut reoffending rates. The Prison Reform Trust hopes the Government, struggling to contain a prisons crisis, will listen to a humane solution."Reuse content