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Setting out a new framework for the penal system, the final report of the Commission on English Prisons Today which was published yesterday, falls a little short for me. The reports conclusion asks for example, the question; ‘what kind of society do you wish to live in?’ Firstly, it seems strange to have this in the conclusion, but secondly my answer to this (and I suspect many other answers) won’t immediately point to the penal system. 

Setting out a new framework for the penal system, the final report of the Commission on English Prisons Today which was published yesterday, falls a little short for me. The reports conclusion asks for example, the question; ‘what kind of society do you wish to live in?’ Firstly, it seems strange to have this in the conclusion, but secondly my answer to this (and I suspect many other answers) won’t immediately point to the penal system. 

For me, the report seems to isolate the penal system from the wider discussion. Yes, I want to live in a ‘tolerant, pragmatic, forgiving society’ but foremost I want to live in a society where everyone has equal opportunity to opportunity; to education; to jobs; to feeling like they belong and are able to contribute; to succeed in their aspirations; and to live without fear.  And all of this has more to do with communities, networks, joined up working and transparency at all levels.

While I’m writing this I’ve got the Dostoyevsky quote ringing in my head; ‘the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering the prisons’.  Isn’t it about more than this though – is it about the reasons why people enter prison and about what a society is doing to tackle those?  If these challenges are being tackled then surely some of the reforms the Commissions report calls for will automatically be dealt with – there will be a significant reduction in the prison population, prison will become a last resort for the most violent and dangerous criminals, local partnerships will already exist.

Now I don’t want to sound too critical of the report; I think it has some good stuff.  The prison population should be reduced, short sentences should be replaced – where appropriate – with community based responses, local strategic partners should take the lead in a holistic way and we should be delivering change through restorative justice. The report doesn’t come right out and say it but I also agree that political activity in the CJS has had a negative effect and should be more couched alongside reasoned and long-term goals that benefit victims, families, communities and the ex/prisoners themselves.  I just don’t think it goes far enough.

I suppose it’s like the Make Justice Work stuff; you’ve got to start somewhere. And there just isn’t a silver bullet, no matter how hard you look.

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