The Key Ideas

#99 Take an approach to criminal justice which is about improving communities' quality of life rather than approaches which emphasise punishment

There is a strong case for arguing that criminal justice is a quality of life issue. It is about protecting individuals from violence or the loss of or damage to property, making them feel safe and secure where they live, and protecting their environment from vandalism. However, most people tend to see criminal justice as a process of punishment and recompense for harm done. Of course, the very concept of justice does inherently imply that we should face consequences for our actions—and we should. But if the focus of criminal justice is seen as improving the quality of people's lives through greater security, it changes the emphasis.

A focus on quality of life necessitates a long term view: punishing someone for harming people's lives will mean little if they return and cause that harm again and again. So in the end, long-term cannot be achieved by trying to exclude anyone who does 'bad things' (which might mean violent crime, but it might also mean failing to pay a bill or stealing food in desperation) from society. This seems to be the approach taken in the American justice system, where repeat offending is met with long or indeed lifelong jail sentences. This system cannot be said to have worked in almost any way (there are only a very few exceptions with people who, taking into account mental health and psychological issues, seem to be beyond rehabilitation, and who are genuine dangers to society).


For everyone else, we should use whatever approach is shown best to reduce criminality. And the evidence suggests that this is seldom jail. Of course, for many the best preventative method is to make sure they themselves have decent livesdecent income in cohesive communities where they can live with self-respect. That is the primary aim of all-of-us-first politics. But where that hasn't happened or where it has failed, there should as far as possible be a presumption against jail. Certainly there should be an end to short jail sentences which do more harm than good by putting people who may have committed fairly minor crimes into an environment which exposes them to a culture of worse criminality. There are a whole host of ways to ensure reasonable recompense for wrongs done, which encourage some payback to communities they may have harmed and whichcruciallyhelp to rehabilitate offenders and give them the best possible chance of avoiding reoffending. And a national focus on violence reduction and conflict resolution as discussed in chapter ten would make a major difference.


Along with rehabilitation practices, it would be worth looking at the Scottish court system to explore whether it is working as well as it should be. Justice and the law remains a comparatively closed practice and it is not necessarily the case that all aspects of the court system primarily work towards social benefit. Criminal justice is always a thorny subject in which public opinion can be fairly reactionary. An open and broad-based National Justice Policy Academy could undertake a large scale participatory process partly to develop better approaches to criminal justice but also to engage the public in thinking about what is really in their long term interests. Emphasising punishment is probably not it.