Prison reform - what's in it for restorative justice?

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Jon Collins
8 November 2016

The criminal justice world was dominated last week by the publication of Prison Safety and Reform, the long-awaited Ministry of Justice White Paper. After the promise of the Gove era, these proposals are intended to set out how his successor, Liz Truss, will deliver what the then Prime Minister David Cameron described earlier this year as “the biggest shake-up in the way our prisons are run since the Victorian times”.

Having read the White Paper over the weekend, three things struck me which could potentially provide opportunities for restorative justice and for restorative practice more widely.

First, and most obviously, a paragraph near the end of the report (paragraph 222, if you want to read it in context) states that in order to address violence within prisons, governors will be encouraged ‘to take a restorative approach to lower-level violence where appropriate’. It refers to the two pilots being run by Restorative Solutions in HMP Featherstone and HMP Buckley Hall and reports that a toolkit has been made available on ways of adopting restorative approaches.

This is wholly welcome. As I blogged recently, the use of restorative practice can be extremely effective in creating a safe and supportive prison environment. A word of warning, though. As we’ve been speaking to prison governors and senior staff in recent months, it has been made very clear that the implementation of a restorative approach within a prison environment is difficult and demanding. It can have real and very significant benefits, but it’s not necessarily a quick fix. This is by no means meant to put governors off, but they need to be aware of this and plan accordingly.

Second, there is no mention of the use of restorative justice – between the offender and their ‘original’ victim – in the White Paper. This is to be expected - it is focused on structures and processes and therefore doesn’t discuss individual interventions in detail. However, the White Paper’s general focus on improving rehabilitation and more specific focus on increasingly tailored support to reduce reoffending offers a welcome opportunity for restorative justice.

It also says that governors will, as predicted, be given more autonomy to choose which programmes will be run in their prison and more control of their budgets to decide what to prioritise. This could lead to greater use of restorative justice, if and when governors support it. Our current work on prisons is intended to build that support.

Third, victims of crime are barely mentioned. This isn’t a criticism – this is a paper on prison reform and victims traditionally come into very little contact with the prison service. By and large, prisons deal with offenders and victim support is managed elsewhere, by the police, by the National Probation Service and by local PCC-commissioned services.

This does, however, present a problem for restorative justice. In many restorative justice processes that are instigated by or with the victim, the facilitator needs to get access to the offender while they are in prison. The prison is also key to allowing restorative justice to take place, often by enabling the prisoner to leave the prison on ROTL or by identifying a suitable room within the prison to hold a conference. But when resources are tight and staff time is at a premium, what are the incentives for a prison to do this? Victims aren’t a priority. Their experiences won’t affect where the prison ends up in the mooted league tables.

How can this be addressed? Prison governors have told us that it would help if the new ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice made a clear statement in support of restorative justice. NOMS should be clear that prisons are expected to provide a supportive environment for restorative justice to take place.

But the White Paper also states that a new statutory purpose for prisons should be introduced. It is not yet decided what this will be, and therein lies the potential opportunity. It would arguably be beneficial if prisons were required by statute to support other agencies in helping victims to recover from crime, which fits in with the more victim-focused perspective of recent years. This would have broader, but manageable, implications but it would also help to ensure that where a victim wants to take part in restorative justice, prisons do what they can to make it happen. This would help to ensure services working with victims are not thwarted by prison bureaucracy and would ultimately benefit victims of crime.

Opinion is divided as to whether the proposed reforms will go far enough to address the current crisis in our prison system. But for those of us who want to promote and support access to restorative practice, they’re a positive start and at the RJC we’re doing all we can to ensure that it plays a role.