Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 496 - 499)



  Chairman: Mr Herbert, Mr Howarth, welcome to two colleagues. It is not quite the sort of session you might have been expecting because we want to explore with you how the sorts of attitudes we have been looking at earlier influence and affect the development of policy. We will not be giving you a quiz on your party's policies as such but rather more exploring what governs and affects the development of policy in this area.

  Q496  Alun Michael: I want to start with a very basic question which I also think is quite an interesting one. What in your view is or should be the fundamental purpose of the criminal justice system?

  Nick Herbert: That is an interesting question. It also goes to what the purpose of prison is too. I suppose the purpose of the criminal justice system overall is to ensure that the public can be safe and that means that where people have committed offences they are dealt with. They are firstly punished because society does demand that if we are not to allow individuals to take the law into their own hands or to exact their own punishment that society must take on some role to ensure a proper and humane punishment. Secondly, that some form of reparation must be done to the person who is the victim of the crime. Thirdly, the offender is rehabilitated in some way so as to prevent that crime from happening again. One of the things which has gone wrong with the debate about prisons is that the third principle which I outlined has been too overlooked and prisons have been regarded sometimes as places simply of punishment, the punishment essentially being that the person is deprived of their liberty, but places where offenders may be incapacitated certainly, although they are not properly incapacitated if they are released early, but not places where offenders have effectively been rehabilitated. We have seen high re-conviction rates in relation to criminals who have received custodial sentences, particularly high in relation to juvenile offenders and actually relatively high in relation to community sentences as well. So we are failing to prevent the cycle of crime. It is in that respect that the criminal justice system is failing and I think that a great deal more attention needs to be paid to the rehabilitative purpose of sentencing and of the criminal justice system and its effectiveness.

  David Howarth: I think the purpose of the criminal justice system is to minimise the harm from crime and that harm consists in the first place and most importantly the harm done to victims of crime. We must be trying to reduce that harm done to the direct victims. That is the first and most important part of it. Secondly, it includes the fear of crime. The fear of crime is harm done that the criminal justice system should be seeking to minimise. It seems to me significant in Professor Loader's evidence that there is one fifth to one quarter of the population who do not experience much crime and yet are terrified of it. That is harm done and we need to minimise that as well. The third harm is the harm that is produced by devoting resources to this grim subject, that the resources that we devote to the criminal justice system I think most people would much rather see devoted to something else but nevertheless we have to do it and that is why we are under a duty to use those resources as effectively as we can. If you put those reasons together, that is why the question of what works, raised by David Heath, really is important. It is important because what is the opposite of doing what works? It is doing what does not work. Politicians who persist in policies which do not work are effectively raising the crime rate. They are failing to reduce the crime rate, they are failing to reduce the harm from crime in all three of those ways.

  Q497  Alun Michael: If I may suggest to you, the question is actually quite an important one because where there is a consensus about the purposes of the system it is easier to squeeze out those outcomes. Both of your answers—and all of us share this—are quite complex answers because there are several different issues. When we defined the requirements of the youth justice system as being to prevent re-offending in the 1998 Act it has had some beneficial consequences in focusing on stopping re-offending and that has driven the youth offending teams. I suggest to you that if there were a political consensus around what the purpose of the system is, that might well be beneficial in driving the system, whichever government is in power at a particular time.

  David Howarth: That is absolutely right. There can be disagreement about how, but if there is less disagreement about what we are doing then we can move ahead. We can produce enough of a consensus. It is not a question of producing a consensus about everything: it is producing enough of a consensus that the debate becomes more rational at national level and, as Professor Loader said, we can then go to a more local engaged part of the question, drawing more people into the system to rebuild confidence in it from the ground up. At the moment the problem is that confidence leaches away at national level and we all shout about it and seem to disagree about things where in reality I do not think we are disagreeing at all.

  Nick Herbert: I am interested in your comments about actually stating that there should be an objective to reduce re-offending. If you look at the prison system now the political priority that there has been in terms of the management of prisons over the last few years was firstly to prevent what was seen to be a great difficulty at one time which was escapes, the security of prisons and an enormous amount of attention was placed on that. You may remember that. Then there was the decency agenda in ensuring that, for instance, slopping out was made a practice of the past and so on. While there may be objectives relating to reducing re-offending in terms of the management of prisons, it is not a prime objective. None of us would want to give up on the decency agenda or on the security of prisons, the safety of prisons both for the public and prisoners internally. I do not think it is a driving ambition of the Prison Service to reduce re-offending. I do not think that prison governors would honestly say that it is their day to day priority to reduce re-offending, not least because they are only holding prisoners for the duration they are in their jail and someone else is responsible for reducing re-offending when they have left.

  Q498  Chairman: There is excessive movement and the complications of some of the forms of sentencing we have.

  Nick Herbert: Absolutely and therefore you have problems of accountability. Who in the criminal justice system is accountable for delivering what I think would be a consensus about what we actually want to achieve going forward which is a reduction in re-offending. The Government's attempt to introduce accountability in relation to the penal part of the system and the creation of NOMS, the National Offender Management Service has of course been highly problematic.

  Q499  Alun Michael: For the avoidance of doubt, my reference to the point where it was made clear what the purpose was was in relation to the youth justice system where there is specific clarity in law about what its purpose is. That fits with the evidence we heard for instance from Victim Support in an earlier session. There when asked what they would prefer, short of the offence not having happened in the first place they wanted re-victimisation not to take place. It is a very interesting focus.

  David Howarth: The question is not what is now presently thought to be the purpose of the system by the people in it. The real question is what they ought to think is the purpose of the system. You are right that they ought to think the purpose of the system is to prevent re-victimisation. The reduction of crime has to be the guiding principle for the whole of the system, including each particular part of it.

  Nick Herbert: If we think that reducing re-offending is really important then why is it that we do not have available the performance of individual prisons in reducing re-offending? Of course there are legitimate arguments about prisoner movements, as the Chairman pointed out and excessive prisoner movements are a real problem. We are told that data is not available although individual prisoner governors claim that it is available. Can we envisage, for instance, that there would be a school or that we had a policy which said that the individual success of the school in terms of its exam results is not measured or that the success of a hospital in terms of its treatment of patients was not measured? The very fact that that data is not available—perhaps you will have more success in retrieving that data from the Ministry of Justice than we have hitherto—reveals the fact that there is not actually a driving objective within the system to reduce re-offending.

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