The need for smart justice

23 Aug 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 23 Aug 2019

Pic: Jerry Stratton, Wiki Commons


This is both important and welcome. How we treat offenders is one of the most controversial and least understood areas of public policy. The more we talk about it, the better we will know what is involved and how things need to improve.

Penology – the study of punishment – is also a topic where the science of what works best to rehabilitate criminals is consistently at odds with public opinion and political action.

Northern Ireland’s annual Crime Survey consistently reveals that most people think that crime is increasing here. It’s not. In fact it is one of the safest places to live in Europe. The risk of becoming a victim of crime stands at 7.9%. In England and Wales it is 14.4%.

Misconceptions about the prevalence of crime is one factor that undermines confidence in the criminal justice system. The latest Crime Survey shows people citing “tough sentences” as one of the two most important things that would improve its public confidence system.

The clamour for tougher sentences is based on the idea that the more severely we punish people the more likely they will be not to repeat offend and the more others will be deterred from committing similar offences. It is also rooted in a desire to make people suffer for doing wrong and to express society’s disapproval of the crime.

These are all valid reasons for punishment. Yet, paradoxically, there is no evidence that severe punishment leads to lower crime rates.

In Northern Ireland we have 87 prisoners for every 100,000 people in the population; while the equivalent figure for England and Wales is 148 (the highest rate in Western Europe).

Rates of imprisonment in England never used to be as high – the rise has come over the past couple of decades but there has been no evidence that links these incarceration rates to crime reduction.

Indeed prison sentences, particularly short ones are more likely to introduce offenders to a sort of finishing school or university of crime rather than to help them to desist.

In his foreword to the consultation document PBNI’s chair Dale Ashford stresses the need for “smarter” rather than “tougher justice” if we are to reduce re-offending, make communities safer and tackle crime.

 The probation service works right across the criminal justice system.

When people are convicted of crimes a probation officer will prepare a pre-sentence report, in order to help the court determine the appropriate sentence.  It works in communities supervising sentences that must be served in the community. It works in prisons, preparing prisoners for release and supervising those subject to licences. It also works directly with victims of crime through the Victims Information Scheme.

It's vision statement is: “We will lead in the reduction of reoffending by tackling the root causes of offending behaviour and rehabilitating people.  We will be collaborative and transformative to reduce the number of victims of crime and building safer communities.”

There is nothing “soft” about probation work. Officers are in the business of reducing crime and face the extraordinary challenge of helping people – many who lead chaotic lives, to make better choices.

In doing so they come face-to-face with the reality of offenders today.

76% of people under probation supervision in Northern Ireland have an alcohol or drug-related problem.

The report states: “There is a well-established link between drugs, alcohol and crime. In fact, one of the biggest factors that influences whether someone will reoffend is their use of drugs and alcohol. Therefore tackling this type of behaviour is a priority for probation.

Also high numbers of their clients have mental health problems - 40% of people under supervision have a mental health problem.

Recently the Northern Ireland Audit Office published a stinging report on mental health in the criminal justice system. It cited the high frequency of repeat offenders  who live chaotic lives which include mental ill health, alcohol, substance abuse and homelessness.

It observes that many people with complex health and social needs come into contact with the justice system before getting help and support within the community. As the report says the justice system “has become the service of last resort.”

The probation service does not make this point. Others should. The fact is that if we had better mental health provision and people with complex needs were given the right levels of support, we’d have less crime, less repeat offending and our communities would be safer.

The health service will say that it lacks the resources. And it does. Yet the cost is being past on and the price is going up. It’s not just that  police, prison and probation officers are dealing with people who are ill, diverting them from “real” criminals. It’s not just that prison beds are more expensive than hospital beds. It’s not just that people who have mental health problems are being criminalised and their prospects on recovery are being shattered. It also leads to more victims of crime.

Therefore prevention of crime and early intervention with offenders is critical. It is, quite rightly, the focus for the probation service. But it cannot do this alone. More investment in mental health provision in general is required.

The service is seeing an increase in the number of vulnerable clients, and more complex cases. Yet it has also seen its baseline budget cut for several years and is dependent upon temporary funding. This hampers its forward planning.

However it has avoided the disastrous dismantling and privatisation of services that occurred in England and Wales. Over the water punishment – tough justice – won the day over rehabilitation -smart justice. That must never be allowed to happen here.




Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.