Quakers in Criminal Justice

November 2008 Newsletter


Other Friends will have shared my indignation at a recent comment by Jack Straw, Home Secretary, who criticised voluntary groups in the criminal justice system for only showing concern for offenders, and ignoring the victims. The obvious rejoinder is that reducing the numbers who re-offend will also reduce the number of future victims. But we can claim more than this. Who was it that set up Victim Support, I should like to know? Quakers were among the first to be involved. And who is advocating restorative justice? One would have thought Jack Straw would have been congratulating, not criticising, in view of the success of pioneer schemes in bringing victims and offenders together, and healing the sense of outrage which spreads through a community when a crime is committed. And again, who was it that introduced Circles of Support and Accountability into this country? Quakers again, working with past offenders who have caused most anxiety, to ensure that there will be no more victims to come.

If Jack Straw really wants to see fewer victims, he should admit that the non-policy of allowing unlimited prison expansion has done nothing to reassure the wider community about crime, and that sending more and more people to prison serves to increase the number of victims. I do not believe the myth of the “independent judiciary”. Politicians and lawyers attended the same (mostly non-­Quaker) schools; they were at the same colleges; they belong to the same clubs; they play golf together and eat the same dinners. They have every opportunity for exchange of views. The old boy network could easily exert its subtle influence to bring about change, if there was any political will for this to happen.

2010 will be the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. If Jack Straw is serious about reducing social exclusion, he will announce an end to prison expansion, as putting people behind bars, in such numbers, represents the biggest social exclusion of all. (And as I have said before, I am not an abolitionist: I believe there will always be the need for a small number of atrocious offenders to be kept in confinement, if only for their own safety.) The exclusion represented by prison is in most cases an AVOIDABLE exclusion: there ARE alternatives, to prison, and they DO work. The longer a mistaken policy is pursued, the harder becomes the task to change it, as the number of people with a vested interest in opposing any change increases all the time. (Smith's Law.)

Proposals for “titan prisons” are particularly objectionable. Prisons, like other human institutions, depend ultimately on relationships. I am convinced that one reason for the success of the Chelmsford Night Shelter, where I work as a volunteer – concerned for the victims of homelessness, Mr Straw – is that it is SMALL. There is no institutional feel to the place, there is a minimum of rules and everyone is on first-name terms. A visitor cannot tell who is a resident, who is staff and who is a volunteer. That is as it should be; we all have a contribution to make, and though not everyone would use this terminology, I see many moments when people recognise that of God in each other, and respond to it. This kind of atmosphere is very much less likely in vast institutions of 2500 inmates. In that setting it will be all too easy for people to live up to stereotypes and for gang culture to take over, as it does on the streets of the faceless cities.

Meanwhile, incredibly at a time when prison numbers have reached an all-time high, funds are being cut. Promising projects, such as the graphic design company set up by the Howard League at HMP Coldingley to help men lead a decent life on release, are threatened by bureaucratic muddle. I really feel, on criminal justice this government is morally bankrupt; my biggest fear is that it will be replaced by something worse.

On a more hopeful note, many Friends will have seen the attractive booklet recently issued by Friends House, AFramework for Action 2009-2014 with its significant subtitle Together in worship and witness. It sets out seven Quaker priorities for the next few years, and one of them is “Crime and Community Justice”. The depth of Friends' concern was demonstrated at Yearly Meeting, when a special interest session designed for 25 people in the event attracted 70. Friends are weary of seeing well-informed opinion ignored, year after year, by people from whom we once expected better things. The booklet quotes Margaret Amore, who said in Meeting for Sufferings, “Only when we go forward in discomfort can we hope to find our feet in a troubled world.”

Adrian Smith
Newsletter editor

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