Public understanding of crime and justice: the campaign continues

Under the last Labour government, I was a senior civil servant, and in one of my roles, I was Director of Communications at what is now the Ministry of Justice. In many respects, both under the last government and in this one, MoJ is one of the most quietly reforming of departments – unglamorous yet critical to the evolution of our justice system, which ought to be the best in the world, yet struggles.

I worked closely with the then Lord Chancellor, the dynamic and forward-thinking Charlie Falconer, and Lord Chief Justice, Harry Woolf, who has since become a valuable source of insight to me on restorative justice and mediation.

The two of them were responsible for an important new constitutional settlement with the judiciary. I supported them by creating the first ever Head of Public Information to support the Lord Chief Justice. Society stands to gain by an independent judiciary, a modern one that can effectively communicate its purpose and plans. My other main challenges in that time were leading communications planning across Whitehall to support the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, where we won grudging acceptance from sceptics that government was ready to be open, and communicating significant changes in legal aid, though not on the scale of what has happened since.

Some sections of the media did themselves no favours on FoI by making vexatious requests. But I spent most of my time arguing the case for greater openness in government, even though many ministers and civil servants I worked with thought FoI was more trouble than it was worth. This was altogether the wrong attitude, in my view. We still have a “need to know”, rather than a “need to share” culture in government and large companies, and security and commercial confidence are best protected if boundaries between sensitive and public information are not blurred.

I reported to the Permanent Secretary, Sir Alex Allan, who as Tony Blair’s e-Envoy, first appointed me in 2000 as the UK Government’s new Director of e-Communications.

This period in my career revived a life-long interest in social policy, especially reform of the criminal justice system. I was a member of the National Criminal Justice Board, representing the communications function of Home Office, MoJ and Crown Prosecution Service, and led internal consultancy on collaboration among all the main criminal justice agencies in England and Wales for what was the Office for Criminal Justice Reform.

But it was my work as a consultant at Cornerstone Global Associates in support of advocacy and business development for the restorative justice expert and pioneer John McDonald, at ProActive ReSolutions, that is still the most far-reaching. John McDonald took me under his wing in training Lancashire Constabulary develop their officers’ skills in implementing restorative justice.

Under the Coalition Government, I worked as a private sector consultant making the case for the wider adoption of restorative justice, conducting primary and secondary research that brought me into contact with MoJ ministers, police forces, Restorative Justice Council and Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology. I supported a wider coalition, led by the Restorative Justice Council, that led to changes in legislation, and a marked shift in the institutional response to restorative justice.

The tide has turned on restorative justice, partly for economic, political and professional reasons. Economic, because pressure on public spending means reducing court and other costs. Political, because the last Labour government was timid about reform in this area, fearing a backlash from right-wing media. The Daily Mail has good instincts on public anxiety on many issues, but I think that it does not understand the cycle of emotions that victims of crime go through. Anger is certainly part of the response, and rightly so, but other emotions also come into play, to which media and officialdom are all too often insensitive. Victims of crime suffer a triple whammy: the crime itself, the authorities’ often clunky response to it, and media and society’s either sensationalist or resigned response to it. Lacking is emotional intelligence, and a process for managing response over time.

There is a deep desire to understand what has happened, to make sense of it, if not forgive, at least accept, obtain justice, and move on. Restorative justice is not a substitute for custodial sentences for some crimes, but even with serious crimes, it can make a difference.

All political parties need to confront the deeper issues relating to crime and punishment, in a way that both acknowledges the experience of victims of crime and crime’s wider impact on families and communities, and fosters a positive environment for addressing the consequences of crime.

I know from former colleagues and more recent contacts in the criminal justice system that there is an ongoing debate on the future of police and crime commissioners. My advice to all political parties is to lay off the Chief Constables and concentrate instead on building a better, deeper public understanding of crime and its resolution. That’s where real leadership lies.

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2 Responses to Public understanding of crime and justice: the campaign continues

  1. Roger Miles says:

    Restorative Justice is the natural way forward. I agree entirely that the justice system needs to develop a response that’s responsive to the emotional state of victims. More than this, RJ understands that giving criminals an appreciation of consequence is the essential missing component (as many of them are empathy-blind to start with). If the justice system can recognise the value of this – literally, in its cost-benefit mapping of the ‘whole of life’ impacts of crime – we will be making progress.

    The Chief Constables problem is analogous to Fire Chiefs, who for a while were penalised for reducing the instance of house fires until someone worked out that preventative programmes save the public purse more money in the long run! Same effect is just beginning to come through in UK public healthcare thinking. Criminal justice merits this approach too. A simple whole-of-life costing of the current approach (the crime itself, followed by prosecution, incarceration, probable recidivism) would surely show RJ is a huge improvement!

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