01 June 2007

Justice: Retributive or Restorative?

What is so wrong that the former Deputy Director of the National Crime Squad and head of Northern Ireland's anti-terrorist intelligence unit in Belfast believes that answers to the problem of paedophilia need to be found outside the criminal justice system? Quite clearly, having passed the best part of 400 acts of Parliament and in excess of 32,000 statutory instruments over the last ten years, part of the answer is this Government's unhealthy obsession with new legislation.

Yet, today's call by the chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), Jim Gamble, for child sex offenders to receive a police caution and be managed within the community, rather than sent to jail, also raises a number of fundamental questions about how we understand justice and the role of prisons.

At present, crime is treated as a violation of the state and its laws and justice seeks to establish blame and administer punishment. However, there are alternative models. Indeed, the long term use of incarceration as a method of legal punishment is a relatively modern idea, introduced in the late 18th century with the aim of improving prisoners through a mixture of work, discipline and personal reflection. As a friend pointed out to me over the bank holiday, the Old Testament legal system made no provision for prisons. Instead, crime was treated as a violation of people and their relationships and justice sought to identify who had been hurt and what could be done to make things right.

So, instead of simply asking, "Who is to blame?" and seeking retribution, perhaps we should also be asking, "Who has been hurt?" and seek restoration. A greater focus on responsibility and reconciliation, restitution and rehabilitation would certainly be cheaper for the victims of crime and innocent taxpayers, who presently pay £32,888 a year to accommodate each of the country's 80,000+ prisoners (almost one in six of whom come from abroad, costing us almost £400 million a year).