Why Blunkett's not doing us justice

The new Home Secretary will be 'tough as boots' on violent and repeat offenders, but has said little about prevention or reintegration.
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The Independent Online

Widely trailed in advance, David Blunkett's first major speech as Home Secretary contains mixed messages. Some of it, predictably, sounds tough, especially for sexual, violent and repeat offenders. He wants to order offenders to accept drug counselling and obey curfews, receiving a final warning after their first offence, with one chance before getting "as tough as boots"; he calls for minimum sentences and more antisocial behaviour orders (with no mention of trying mediation first).

He talks of reparation and a "fair deal" for the victim, or paying back to the community, but pre-election remarks by Tony Blair gave hackneyed examples such as cleaning graffiti, which are mainly punitive. The facing-both-ways policy is starkly exemplified by the notion of evening or weekend jail and "custody-plus': offenders would do a spell in prison followed by "intensive" action plans in the community.

The hard edges are softened by the welcome suggestion that "behaviour contracts" may not need to be preceded by imprisonment, because of its damaging side-effects. To that extent, this is not a "bang 'em up" policy.

In practice, however, it is bound to be, and with the prison population already a record 66,000, there is no mention of cancelling cost-ineffective plans for 2,500 more prison places. Why will these policies make them necessary? Firstly, courts will be attracted by "custody-plus", and use it where a community sentence would have been more constructive.

Secondly, trying to toughen community sanctions by a strict policy of "three, two, or one strike and you're out" always has this effect: like all deterrent theories it assumes that offenders know what they'll get, and calculate their actions accordingly. Politicians, civil servants and other professionals, having a lot to lose, may do so (to some extent); but young people from chaotic and often abusive backgrounds don't. Mr Blunkett said little about prevention, or being tough on the causes of crime.

What else is wrong with this policy? Is a large prison population such a bad thing? Yes, because it is based on a series of fallacies. Everyone in the business knows that deterrence is very limited in its effect. Do we really want to live in a society based on fear? Two successive chief prison inspectors have confirmed what reform groups such as the Howard League have said all along: that prisons, especially for young offenders, deny basic rights and are counter-productive; and that the younger offenders are, the more they reoffend. The imprisoning of offenders to control crime is as effective as a high-interest loan in controlling debt: it staves off the crisis, then aggravates it. This is a policy for creating persistent offenders: most hardened criminals are hardened in prison.

Mr Blunkett, like most politicians, likes to talk of giving courts more "power", and this goes down well with magistrates; but they have no more power to prevent offending, even among the 3 per cent of offenders who reach court, than King Canute over the tide. As for a "fair deal for victims", the more policies are based on punishment, the more they make offenders think of themselves, rather than those they have hurt.

The Home Secretary deserves credit for emphasising rehabilitation, and many young offenders certainly do need help. But this, too, in a different way, makes them think of themselves rather than their victims, and the public sees it as rewarding them for their offences. There is no mileage these days in leniency as such.

So where else could David Blunkett look for a new idea?

What does a Home Secretary want? A society based on respect for others, presumably, rather than fear of consequences; enabling victims (if they want to) to ask the offender questions, express feelings, and discuss suitable reparation; holding offenders answerable and enabling them to make amends voluntarily before using coercion. He would probably want public involvement in the process, and reduction in the number of cases coming to court if they could be better resolved outside.

This is the real idea of restorative justice, not just getting offenders to write a letter of apology or pick up litter. Community tasks would include those that show the offender's positive abilities, such as helping disabled children to learn to swim or elderly people to go shopping. What many victims want is action to avoid a recurrence, so reparation could include co-operating with rehabilitative programmes to tackle the offender's problems through work skills, anger management, and addiction treatment. Out-of-court victim- offender dialogues mediated by trained volunteers would show up pressures towards crime, so that the authorities could tackle these in a social crime-reduction strategy. Research shows that victims like it; offenders think it is fair. It condemns the offence but reintegrates the offender. Isn't this better than the rhetoric of a "war against crime"?

Martin Wright is vice chair of the Restorative Justice Consortium