19:24, December 30 186 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-30 19:24:03
The big issue  The big issue: ‘prison works’ is an outdated concept that benefits no one

Yet again evidence shows that prison doesn’t work (“Two-thirds of prisoners given short sentences go on to reoffend”, News), but no doubt legislators will again ignore it in favour of listening to the Mail. You explain how campaigners are pressing for short prison sentences to be replaced with community alternatives, a necessity that has long been obvious.

However, one aspect of the proposal is worrying: “community sentences” is a catch-all for any penalty that doesn’t involve incarceration. This is not a very encouraging definition: “prison works” enthusiasts will simply switch to “humiliation works”, with chain gangs dressed in fluorescent clothing cleaning up litter.

What works (and what the article doesn’t mention) is restorative justice (RJ). This is something that has been available for many years, since Labour introduced it in 1998 as one of its first acts after taking power. The most important weapon in the RJ armoury was and is “referral orders”. They are much more than community arrangements. They are organised by youth offending teams, which not only embody collaboration between different agencies (police, social services, education) but also involve trained volunteers from the community to which the offender belongs. They aim to enable repentance and a degree of payback and thereby rehabilitate offenders. Victims have the opportunity of being fully involved.

Referral orders are associated with a much lower reoffending rate than other disposals and it speaks volumes for the timidity of politicians that they are still, after nearly 20 years, very little known. Even these orders, however, need careful management if they are to succeed, which underlines the importance of getting community penalties right. A report by the probation inspectorate last year acknowledged that the system needs updating and not all youth offending teams are equally effective.

No one would recommend short prison sentences for non-dangerous offenders (especially young ones), but even if we succeed in abolishing these, there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that offenders genuinely seek to be welcomed back into their communities. That is the secret of low reoffending rates and is at the heart of restorative justice.

Jeremy Cushing

Exeter

I believe the criminal justice system is loaded against those accused of rape (“Atrocious failures blight our justice system. Should disclosure decisions be taken away from the police?”, Comment, editorial, last week).

Complainants usually give evidence by way of video, recorded in advance at a venue remote from the court. They are cross-examined over a television link, never having to enter the courtroom at all. Questions to them in court by the defence are carefully controlled by the judge to ensure they are not treated unfairly in any way.

In contrast, an accused has to sit in the dock throughout the trial. If he wishes to give evidence, he has to do so in open court in front of all who are present. His evidence can be ridiculed by an experienced prosecutor. Hearsay evidence can be used against him, as can previous convictions. If he chooses to exercise his right to silence, either in interview or by not giving evidence at trial, that decision can be dismissed as the last resort of the guilty.

In the space of about 20 years, we have gone from a situation in which women’s complaints of sexual assault were not taken seriously to a situation in which their account is simply accepted by the police and not challenged until the trial. In so doing, we have replaced one bad policy with another. It is in such an atmosphere that officers fail to investigate properly and evidence that would prove an accused is innocent can be overlooked.

Mark George QC

Garden Court North Chambers

Manchester M3