Lessons from abroad for justice reform

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15 Dec 2016

Today sees the publication of two briefings authored by Jessica Jacobson and Helen Fair of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck. The briefings highlight learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT) Prison Reform Fellowships, which have a particular focus on prison reform across the world.

The briefings can be downloaded here

The two briefings highlight some of the learning from these Fellowships.

Maintaining Family Contact

It is widely recognised that the maintenance of family contact is a key source of support for prisoners during their time in custody and on release. A 2014 Ministry of Justice report found that offenders who maintain family relationships and receive visits while in custody are 38% less likely to reoffend than those who do not receive visits. Lord Farmer has recently been commissioned by the government to chair an independent review to investigate how supporting men in prison to engage with their families can reduce reoffending and assist in addressing intergenerational crime.

Maintaining family ties during a term in prison is not just important for the prisoner but also for the prisoner’s children and other family members. It is estimated that 200,000 children in England and Wales had a parent in prison at some point in 2009.

Key learning from the Fellowships includes:

  • Efforts to maintain relationships between prisoners and their families should begin from the start of a prisoner’s sentence.
  • The arts can be an effective tool to help prisoners maintain bonds with their children and wider family.
  • The use of initiatives such as ‘graduations’ to mark the successful completion of programmes in prison can help prisoners’ demonstrate their self-worth and have their achievements recognised by their peers and family.
  • Family visits are vital to the maintenance of family relationships, and extended visits of a few hours to a few days can provide opportunities for prisoners to spend quality time with their families.
  • Recognition should be given to the trauma that can be caused to a child through their parents’ involvement in the criminal justice system, and efforts to mitigate such trauma are to be welcomed.
  • Initiatives that support children and their caregivers to maintain links with their imprisoned parents and which help to reduce the shame and stigma they face are to be welcomed. Schools can play a vital part in supporting such children.

Problem-solving approaches

Problem-solving approaches to criminal justice involve integrated, multi-disciplinary practices which target the environmental and psychosocial factors bound up with offending behaviour, as well as the behaviour itself. Three types of problem-solving approach were examined by Churchill Fellows. First, welfare-oriented and diversionary work with children and young people who have offended or are at risk of offending. Second, some collaborative initiatives between the police and mental health services were examined. Third, a range of problem-solving courts were also considered.

International lessons

The Fellowships offer a way of learning about how other countries respond to crime and whether a similar approach could be taken here. Fellows include frontline prison officers and governors, civil servants, artists, barristers, police professionals and academics from across the UK. In total, 51 Fellows travelled as far as Australia and Africa to bring back learning which could assist UK policymakers in reducing reoffending and prison numbers. Many Fellows are already applying the learning in a range of local and national settings.

Dr Jessica Jacobson, Director of ICPR and co-author of the reports, said: ‘England and Wales has the highest prison population rate in Western Europe. Prisons in this jurisdiction have recently been described by the Chief Inspector as ‘unacceptably violent and dangerous places’. In this context, there is much to learn from how other countries respond to crime, and the WCMT Fellowships provide an important means of doing so. 

Helen Fair, ICPR Research Fellow and co-author of the reports, said “The Churchill Fellowships have provided a wealth of information about criminal justice interventions in other jurisdictions. In these reports we look at a number of initiatives focused on supporting relationships between prisoners and their families. and at a variety of problem-solving approaches involving multi-disciplinary responses to offending behaviour. We hope that these briefings, and the longer Fellowships reports on which they are based, will provide food for thought for those looking for new ways of dealing with these complex issues.”