Quakers in Criminal Justice

August 2007 Newsletter


About the very day Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, the prison population reached 81,000. He was asked to comment, and he said, “We will provide the money to build more prison places.” I paused, teacup in hand, for him to go on and say, “We shall also reconsider the policy of sending ever-increasing numbers of people to jail, to see whether this is really cost-effective, and whether it actually increases the protection of the public.” But he did not say it.

I am not an abolitionist. There will always be a few people for whom custody will be inevitable: religious fanatics who plot the mass destruction of civilians in cities, for a start. I note seven fatal stabbings of teenagers so far this year, four of them in London. To allow the perpetrators immediately to return to the streets would lead to lynch law. Yet it is clear that there are many people behind bars serving short sentences who need not be there at all, and others serving extended sentences longer than they would have done a generation ago, to satisfy public indignation rather than to serve the requirements of justice. What exactly is “Justice”, anyhow? Who claims the right to define it? A prison sentence should not be a death sentence. Yet there have been 50 prison suicides so far this year, a big increase on 2006, when there were “only” 67 in the whole year. Meanwhile, prisons are so overcrowded that some inmates are being released early to create space for others. The question is asked, “Will this threaten the safety of the public?” My answer is, it will make precious little difference, one way or another. For very many inmates, the only purpose of their imprisonment is to express public disapproval of their misdeeds; there is no real expectation that the experience of prison will bring about any change of heart. Under present conditions, it is not possible to do much more than contain people in secure conditions.

Unusually, this issue includes five book reviews. One features a book by a QICJ member, and another a project partly funded and carried out by Quakers. The criminal justice scene is not all doom and gloom. What is needed is the political will to put the best ideas into more widespread practice, and escape the present maelstrom of frustration.

Adrian Smith
Newsletter editor

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