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By Alex Hunt17 February 2014
Politics editor, BBC News website

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The Coalition should be brave, save money, and show the public that restorative justice works

By David Abrahams

15 December 2011


In my capacity as a trustee board member of NEPACS (North East Prison After Care Society) I am dismayed at the public’s lack of judgement regarding the role of prison and the effect of sending minor offenders to jail with hardened criminals.
 
What is the point of sending petty thieves, drug users and those with mental disabilities to prison? In the first two cases the cycle of crime just perpetuates if nothing is done to give both groups gainful employment on their release. In the third case its insensitive, barbaric and a national disgrace to use prison to sweep society’s most vulnerable people off the streets.
In general the government and judicial system appears to be caught in a rut of its own making and is kowtowing to the public’s misconception that prison works. In most cases it doesn’t. Britain sends far too many people to prison. At 85,000 and rising we have per capita one of the world’s highest  prison populations. It’s a national disgrace, and a scandal.
  
It’s been like this for over 300 years. Since the social and political arguments appear lost, perhaps the economic arguments might appeal to the coalition? Where is there any logic on spending £38,000 on average per prisoner? This is nearly three times the sum paid to someone on Job Seekers’ Allowance. Or twice as much as much as a single mother with two children receives in benefits.
Often it is the families of offenders - and especially their children - who become the hidden victims of crime when a relative is imprisoned. Just imagine the impact a prison visit has on the young mind of an impressionable child. NEPACS’ staff and volunteers do all we can to ensure that such visits, which are vital to maintaining a family’s cohesion are as pleasant as they can be.
I’m not soft on crime. Far from it. The punishment should fit the crime, but in most cases a prison sentence leaves the victims as well totally isolated and ignored. Restorative processes bring those harmed by crime or conflict, and those responsible for the harm, into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.
There is a strong and growing evidence base that restorative processes in the criminal justice system - restorative justice - meets the needs of victims and reduces the frequency of re-offending.
 
In the UK the Restorative Justice Council provides quality assurance and is a national voice for the field of restorative practice. Recently they published compelling findings of a seven year research programme:
 
   •  The majority of victims chose to participate in face-to-face meetings with the offender, when offered by a trained facilitator
   •  85% of victims who took part were satisfied with the process
   •  Restorative justice reduced the frequency of re-offending, leading to £9 savings for every £1 spent on restorative justice.
  
Expert independent criminologists Professor Lawrence Sherman and Dr Heather Strang state that the reduction in the frequency of re-offending found in this research was 27% - that's 27% less crime, 27% fewer victims following restorative justice.
Alongside the Sentencing Green Paper in December 2010 the Government published their own further analysis of the data behind the Shapland reports, quantifying the size of the reduction in the frequency of re-offending following restorative justice as 14%.
Cost-benefit savings of £1billion in 10 years.
This independent, expert analysis of the economic benefits has revealed that restorative justice would likely lead to a net benefit in the UK of over £1billion over ten years.
    
Diverting young offenders from community orders to a pre-court restorative justice conferencing scheme would produce a life time saving to society of almost £275 million (£7,050 per offender). The cost of implementing the scheme would be paid back in the first year and during the course of two parliaments (i.e. 10 years) society would benefit by over £1billion.
Yet we still throw shop lifters, petty criminals, drug-users and the mentally ill – as well as gangsters, rapists, murders and rapists – to jail.
   
We should hang our heads in shame.