Quakers in Criminal Justice

Quakers in Criminal Justice Conference 2007
Those Harmed by Crime...?

The 2007 conference of Quakers in Criminal Justice took place at Glenthorne Quaker Study Centre, Grasmere, Cumbria, from 23 to 25 February 2007.

The aim of the conference...

The categories “offender” and “victim” encourage us to think that those identified have distinct characteristics and that we only need to concern ourselves with them. But this may be too simplistic.

For instance, a “victim” usually refers to someone who is the immediate subject of a crime. This denies the reality that others caught in the shockwaves of a crime may be deeply traumatised by the experience but have their needs ignored. Crucially, studies have shown that a high proportion of those labelled “offenders” have, in other contexts, been the “victims” of crime themselves.

How, as Quakers, can we respond in a richer, deeper, more nuanced way which gives humanity to “offenders” who are, after all, “offenders” only when they are actually offending? How can we recognise and respond to the pain and loss of all those caught up in the vortex of a crime?

Restorative justice is often identified as a way of acknowledging wider realities. The exploration of the concept of social inclusion (as distinct from social exclusion) might also guide us.

In this conference we want to address these issues which challenge us as individuals, in our meetings, and in our lives. We hope that a richer appreciation might help us to a more authentic, inclusive and open response to … “those harmed by crime…”.

A participant writes about the conference...

A consideration of “those harmed by crime” was the challenge we set ourselves when we assembled in Glenthorne. It emerged that all of us had committed an offence of some sort and most of us had been victims of crime. Many offenders have been victims of crime themselves. So the distinctions between victim and offender blur.

Two emergent topics re-focussed our weekend. Firstly, a prisoner from an open prison was to have talked about his experiences. Unfortunately a painful pattern repeated itself: unable to face the challenge of life outside, he had absconded from prison, giving himself up a few hours later, and thereby being recalled to closed conditions. His letter explained: I’m afraid to go out [leave prison]. In my heart I know I don’t want to.

Secondly, a speaker shared her concern and outrage about the criminal justice system, leading to the composition of the Minute reproduced below. She asked: What does John Reid mean by “Rebalancing the criminal justice system” in favour of the victim i.e. against the defendant? How are “victim” and “justice” defined? For example, there is a low reporting rate of crime against children, but outrage is expressed when children behave in an anti-social way. Can justice be impartially administered on behalf of an “unbalanced” society where poverty, racism and marginalisation are rife?

In his keynote address, a former senior prison governor pointed out that crime damages relationships and the “simple solution” of prison is quite inadequate. Two approaches have far more to recommend them: Community Justice, stressing local accountability, and the needs-based methodology of Restorative Justice.

The workshops were no less stimulating:

Drawing the themes together, our final session reflected on Quakerism (“A DIY religion, encouraging responsibility”), Crime (“Crime is what society chooses to criminalise”) and what makes the Quaker response to crime unique. We felt that the Society should take up this burden and proclaim alternatives to the punitive media-let culture which demonises the vulnerable. These issues affect us all.