There is an illustrious tradition of penal reformers – courageous men and women like John Howard, Elizabeth Fry, Herbert Gladstone – who have made a profound contribution to improving how society treats offenders. But crucially, they spoke in a language people understood.
The criminal justice lobby today is full of people every bit as committed and dedicated, and who do a very good job. However, I am concerned that it has retreated into language that doesn't chime with the public. It is no use railing at them, at the press, at the media, at government, at me, for being unsympathetic.
When I hear phrases like "criminogenic needs of offenders" it drives me nuts, for two reasons. First, it is pretty impenetrable jargon designed to put a barrier between the practitioner and public. And second, because I profoundly disagree that we should describe someone's amoral desire to go thieving as a "need" equivalent to that of victims or the law-abiding public.
Likewise with the gnashing of teeth from some quarters over the term punishment. It is because the prison reform, and indeed the children's lobby, is so well established and so well organised that we hear loud and clear about the needs of offenders.
But we hear far less often from these lobbies about the needs of the victim. They sometimes forget who the victim is, so lost do they become in a fog of platitudes and debate over the "needs" of the offenders. I challenge the criminal justice lobby that works so effectively to keep pressure on government over standards in prison to tell me how they think the victim could be put more at the heart of their work.
What is in the interests of victims and communities and what is in the interest of offenders need not be competing interests, but there does need to be a balance. The two key principles of punishment and reform help provide this balance.
The criminal justice system must ultimately serve the public; the taxpayers who fund it, the communities protected by it. There needs to be a clearer recognition of this. It begins with the language we use. Punishment and reform. Two simple words. Let's have them back.
Jack Straw, Secretary of State for Justice, was speaking at the Royal Society of the Arts yesterdayReuse content