Our criminal justice system and prisons need radical reform | Letters

John Bird recalls his incarceration as a teenager, Baroness Young and others call for an end to racial discrimination, and other writers outline proposals for reform

Prisons are enormous social machines for producing something we don’t want to produce. And with 86,413 locked-up prisoners, we’re producing it at record levels (Letters, 4 September and 7 September). I was put away for a short, sharp shock at 14 for stealing a bike. I was then given a three-to-five-year sentence at 15 for stealing £5. And as I raised in last week’s Lords crossbench debate on prison overcrowding, I also failed at school – as did most of my fellow inmates and virtually every person I meet in prisons today.

Until we move to prevention, and until we begin to dismantle poverty, we will have overcrowded prisons. Prisons that don’t work. We can be as clever as we like and come up with all sorts of new solutions, but, first, let us stop the churn. Let us stop the arrival of people into prisons. And let us accept that the revolutionary need in our thinking is that prevention is better than cure.
John Bird
House of Lords

• Yet again we are told the shocking truth about how many children get involved with the criminal justice system in England and Wales. In this case (Exposed: race bias in British justice system, 8 September) David Lammy puts the focus on black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals. It applies to adults as well, but arguably the worst damage inflicted by unnecessary prosecutions is to minors (the English system allows prosecutions from the age of 10, only just less outrageous than the Scottish at eight).

The idea of deferred prosecutions is excellent and one hopes, though without too much optimism, that the government will go for this idea. However, we have had an almost equally good procedure available since an act brought in by the Blair government in 1999: referral orders. These do require prosecutions, but are only available in cases where a plea of guilty is entered, so do not involve lengthy trials. Under a referral order the person convicted, instead of going into the penal system in some way or other, is “referred” to a panel of volunteers organised by the local youth offending team (a mixed group of professionals, including social services and the police). Referral orders are still little known by the public, but they operate under the ethos of restorative justice and have a low reoffending rate. They have never been used as much as they could have been, and youth offending teams are much weakened by cuts to local government.

Their use could be revived and extended. In the case of BAME offenders, panels could be made up of people from the appropriate community. Restorative justice works. It maximises the chance of rehabilitation (it “restores” the offender to his or her community) and minimises reoffending. For some reason, our system is still resistant to it, preferring punishment even when it manifestly doesn’t work and uses up vast amounts of taxpayers’ money.
Jeremy Cushing

• David Lammy is right. It will take more than simple policy change to tackle the racial discrimination that defines – and shames – our criminal justice system. Our experience shows that some of the biggest barriers to a fairer system are institutionalised and it is vital that government, the courts, probation service, youth offending teams and custodial settings are all led by Lammy’s principle of “explain or reform” to make inaction on racial and ethnic disparities a thing of the past.

As leaders of agencies working with men and women across the criminal justice system and/or members of the Young Review, we are committed to creating a system that no longer discriminates against men and women from BAME communities and to supporting the leaders of our justice system to achieve this. We start by calling on government to fully support Lammy’s recommendations and seize this opportunity to create a criminal justice system which delivers value, fairness and effectiveness for us all. We need a clear and transparent plan of practical action, and to increase public trust and confidence by involving BAME community groups and voluntary organisations to support every part of our justice system.
Baroness Young of Hornsey Chair, Young Review
Adrienne Darragh CEO, Hibiscus Initiatives
Patrick Williams Manchester Metropolitan University
Julian Corner CEO, Lankelly Chase
Diane Curry CEO, Partners of Prisoners
Frances Crook CEO, Howard League for Penal Reform
Richard Garside Centre for Crime and Justice Studies
Katharine Sacks-Jones Director, Agenda
Kathy Roberts Chief executive, Association of Mental Health Providers
Chris Wright Chief executive, Catch22
Mifta Choudhury Youth-ink
Christina Marriott CEO, Revolving Doors Agency
Christopher Stacey Co-director, Unlock
Peter Dawson Director, Prison Reform Trust
Khatuna Tsintsadze Zahid Mubrek Trust
Raheel Mohammed Maslaha
Kate Paradine CEO, Women in Prison
Whitney Iles CEO, Project 507
Sado Jirde Director, Black South West Network
Omar Khan Runnymede Trust
John Mayford Olmec
Andy Gregg CEO, Race on the Agenda
Neena Samota St Mary’s University
Sara Llewellin CEO, Barrow Cadbury Trust
Jeremy Crook CEO, Black Training & Enterprise Group
Jacob Tas CEO, Nacro
Shafiur Rahman Executive director, Osmani Trust

• David Lammy is right to recommend a process for sealing criminal records. He has recognised the significant negative impact that the criminal records disclosure regime has on people’s chances of finding work after they’ve turned their lives around. It unnecessarily anchors people to their past, locks them out of the labour market and has a considerable financial cost to society through out-of-work benefits. The regime is in desperate need of reform. Unlock has long supported the introduction of a criminal records tribunal, a process that would enable individuals to apply to have their criminal record deemed spent or filtered, and, if granted, would mean it must no longer be disclosed to employers on a relevant criminal record check. There is evidence from overseas that this approach works, and it would help to address the injustice that many people face as a result of what are arbitrary fixed rules that take no account of the positive steps people have taken since their criminal record.
Christopher Stacey
Co-director, Unlock, for people with convictions

• The Lammy review has raised important questions about the treatment of black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system. One group that urgently needs renewed focus is BAME women. They face a double disadvantage: discriminated against because of both their gender and their race. The report draws particular attention to the magistrates courts, where BAME women are more likely to be convicted than white women and are more likely to be tried at crown court after being charged.

This coincides with what women told us for our own research, giving troubling accounts of discrimination and injustice from the courts through to prison. Most women in prison have committed nonviolent offences, and the root causes of their offending are often linked to high levels of disadvantage and complex needs, including mental ill health, addiction and experience of abuse. The overuse of prison for remand and sentencing of women needs to end. We must invest in prevention and community-based support, including women’s centres, which are proven to be more effective than prison at reducing reoffending. Sexism, racism and unconscious bias should have no part in the criminal justice system. It is imperative that action is taken to ensure fairness throughout the process – with increased understanding of the distinct experiences of BAME women. We hope that the publication of the Lammy review is a first step to achieving this.
Katharine Sacks-Jones Director, Agenda
Dr Kate Paradine Chief executive, Women in Prison

• In prisons we see the vulnerable preyed upon by fellow inmates, with even their food stolen in some cases, for want of help and representation. We have legal aid so restricted now hardly anyone qualifies. There are only 5,000 criminal defence solicitors left in England and Wales. A staggering 1,000 resigned in April because of the difficulties in finding clients who qualify for legal aid under the new scheme. It is high time the government expanded its public defender programme and offered to employ these 5,000 solicitors as civil servants, providing free criminal defence in our magistrates’ courts and police stations. They could mostly work from home and have jobs allocated to them by the duty solicitor call centre at very low cost.
Nigel Boddy
(Solicitor), Darlington

• I was saddened to read the report of David Lammy’s review, not only by the injustice he found, but because most of the facts were known and had been exposed by the work of Nacro and others 30 years ago. They have hardly changed since then and we have been reminded of them several times – for example, by the Parekh report in 2000. Many of the ideas contained in his recommendations were also discussed at that time. Sincere and well-intentioned efforts to bring about change lost momentum when they came to be dismissed as “political correctness” and because they did not fit the tick-box culture of management which was then becoming prevalent. Experience shows that the issues to be tackled are about much more than organisation, process and management. They are about the kind of people we are and the kind of country we want to live in; they are matters of social and professional conscience and they deserve much more than a conventionally bland or complacent response.
David Faulkner
(Home Office, 1959-92), Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire

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