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Speech on Penal Policy - Worcester Cathedral

Monday 17th July 2006

The Archbishop gave the following address on penal policy on Monday 17th July 2006 at Worcester Cathedral to an audience of diocesan clergy and visitors from the prison and probation services.

In his address, the Archbishop speaks of his concerns about overcrowding, re-offending rates, suicide and self harm by prisoners, and of the threats to building a just and trustworthy society posed by political interference and the increasing role of the private sector in managing the penal system.

A transcript of the Archbishop's speech follows:

Our system of justice in this country has drifted in directions and very few of us in fact are happy with them. I hope that during the day what that means will become a bit clearer not least from those of you bright enough to respond to what I say out of a far more intense, long term and confessional engagement.

But part of the task that has been given to me is to start a little further back and to invite you to reflect on the terms that we use, on words like 'justice' and 'order'. And so I begin with a word of caution about too abstract a definition of 'justice'. It helps I think, for us to begin by asking what we might mean by describing a person, a policy or a decision, as just or unjust. And while we might turn up the text books and the philosophy, the classics, to find definitions of justice, I want to suggest that what is uppermost in our minds very often, when we regard someone or some thing as 'just' is very simple. I think it's about whether or not we can trust someone not to undermine our interests by promoting theirs. So that justice in a society becomes visible and operative when people believe they have access to what I'm going to call 'trustworthy power'. That is when people believe they have access to agencies that can make a difference to their lives and will not act for private ends.

A just society is one in which people trust when power is not used in private interest. And when people in ordinary relationships will regard somebody as 'just' or 'fair', I think, that's part of what we mean when I said 'they are not undermining my interests by promoting theirs'. Crises of justice are therefore never simply about penal policy vacuum, never simply about prison systems or sentencing policy. Crises about justice are crises about power; can we trust that we will have access to agencies that will make a difference but will not act for private ends?

Now I begin with that kind of definition of justice partly because I believe that is very near the heart of how the bible talks about justice. On the whole, Jewish and Christian scripture doesn't talk about justice in terms of fair distribution; giving to each what's due to them within the abstract; scripture talks a great deal about trustworthy power. Scripture sees God as one who is accessible to the powers as one who is not pursuing private interests. It's perhaps a rather strange thing to say about the God of the Bible and archaeology, but it's worth saying: this God has no interests. Which does not mean that we believe in a God who is eternally and superbly bored, it simply means that our God is one who is never fighting his corner, who is never pursuing private goals. The only goals that God might have are goals for the welfare of his creation and the bliss of creative hearts and minds.

And I think this is actually one of the most fundamental revealed teachings of Christianity; that we grasp this vision of God. He is disinterested, that's to say he's not pursuing an agenda, we have no axes to grind. God's purposes are our good, otherwise we wouldn't be here at all. God is in no sense acting as a rival to the creation he has made, otherwise why would there be a creation? The God of the bible acts for the long-term welfare of those with whom he engages. And that means that in the bible, justice is not impersonal, or indifferent; justice is rightly biased to those who have no voice. God's interest, God's purpose and concern, is for the flourishing of what he has made.

Where human circumstances made it impossible for some persons, classes, nations to flourish, Gods speaks for those without a voice. So we don't learn a great deal if we approach the bible looking for abstract definitions of justice, or a kind of empty fairness, we understand justice in the bible as the engagement of God, putting his power to work for those without a voice or advantage. We understand God as the source of the definition of what I've been calling 'trustworthy power'. And when in the New Testament we read about justice and God and the justification of human beings, we should read it against that background. We who made ourselves without voice, because of failure, because of sin, because of rebellion against God, we are those in whose interest God acts. Is he countermanding or undermining his own justice? Well as St Paul might say - he does say - 'God forbid'. This is God's justice that he acts for us who are imprisoned, and helpless and voiceless and not holding our trespasses against us. But that is all of a piece for the justice of God throughout scripture.

So, as I said, my decision to begin with that definition of justice as 'power that can be trusted' has its roots very clearly in the biblical vision of a just God, a trustworthy God. And if we begin from that kind of climate, that kind of basis of faith, we might as we turn to society at large, begin to phrase our questions like this; in order to call a society 'just' what test, what criteria might we give? And perhaps the simplest on the basis of this is the question 'can power be trusted in this society'? 'Is our society open to the challenge and the testing of that question?'

Which is where I'm to turn to the second word in the title, 'order', and suggest that 'order' is a word that perhaps has a rather bad name. It sounds all too readily like something that's imposed; an order to which everyone has to comply, and thus a kind of imposed silence. But I would say rather that 'order', properly understood is a set of habits and processes by which we can go on testing power. Good order is not silenced unchanged uniformity; good order exists when there are proper challenges that can be put within a system. Good order is the possibility of raising the questions without bringing the roof down, to put it very simply.

And an orderly society is therefore, as I've sometimes said in recent years, an argumentative society. Just as, I think, any ordinary institution is properly argumentative, it helps me think about the Church actually; the fact that the Church is a chronically, some would say of course terminally, argumentative body at the moment, doesn't lose me all of my sleep, only some. Because it could mean that it's a sign of order; that we believe in a community in which it's alright for questions and challenges to be processed. The same might apply in many other contexts and you might like to think what 'order' means in a number of social environments, not least perhaps schools. I would say that an orderly school is not necessarily a place of rigid conformity where the rules are kept but a place where it's possible to raise the right kind of questions and challenges, the necessary questions and challenges, without chaos. Where people feel that they can trust the structure to listen and work with them.

So an orderly society is again one in which power can be trusted, where there is access to public challenge and debate. This of course is why political corruption is so bad for you, or at least one reason why political corruption is so bad for you. Corruption always suggests that access is not universal or open; that there are some who can manipulate the levers. Corruption is about hidden agendas and therefore untrustworthy power. And it often goes along suppressing the challenge for the sake of some vision of order.

The collapse of the old Soviet Union had a great deal to do with a huge, universal, loss of confidence in power as trustworthy. The corruption, self interest, and institutionalised violence of the early Soviet bureaucracy meant that no one trusted political processes. Something similar contributed also to the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. People who had lost trust in power; even those who had been doing rather well out of the system realised that the system itself was not to be trusted.

So justice as 'trustworthy power', a just and orderly society as one in which the habits and the processes that challenge can be managed. And all this on the basis for the Christian of a revelation of what ultimate power is actually is actually like. That it is not manipulative, agenda-driven and private but exercised for all.

And so I move on to some thoughts about actual systems of justice, including our own. How do our systems measure up to justice and order conceived in this way? I want to say a few words about both positive and negative aspects of the current situation in the United Kingdom.

One very positive thing is the declared commitment of the government at the moment, to restorative justice, that is to responses to the crime and disorder that seek to mend rather than just to punish, to mend relations. And this has played quite a significant part in the youth justice system in recent years. At least two to three years ago certain areas of the country were doing a great deal of pioneering work in ???? [inaudible] partnership. It would be interesting to hear what's happening at the moment in that particular setting. The point is that when restorative justice becomes ideal and a reality in our justice system, there is more commitment to finding an outcome that everybody can regard as good, an outcome that is owned by both victim and offender. That is very, very difficult process to see through, but you can see perhaps why that might be a good exemplification of some of what I've been speaking about so far; an outcome that is genuinely seen as good by the victim and offender.

That's there, on paper, as a priority in this country's justice policies. The extent to which it has been owned, realised and seen through, is of course, as with many aspects of our system, very patchy, but it's worth noting it as a positive. Other positives include some local initiatives that, for example, seek to involve local communities in the penal business, that's to say a proper use of prison visitors, proper openness to the community's concerns. But I think one of the most impressive things I've seen in any prison I've visited in recent years, is the work done for prisoners' families in some institutions, notably in Wormwood Scrubs in London, where there has been very carefully planned and beautifully executed programme once a week for welcoming prisoners' families, especially for children, into a designated area of the prison, has been one of the most humanising aspect in the institution. There is imagination and there is courage in our justice system and our penal policy. Unfortunately it is very unevenly distributed and that is one of the things we ought to be worried about.

And so I have to say a word about some of those other things we ought to be worried about. I might simply refer you to the recent report on Feltham. Remember that this report was commissioned in the wake of a racist murder within the prison, and the problems identified in that report are fairly symptomatic of much that we currently face.

Basic to many of these problems is overcrowding, and that is certainly one of the things that we ought to be most abidingly and deeply worried about. Overcrowding is not simply a matter of the human rights of offenders put into not only difficult but often lethally dangerous environments. It is also responsible for that rapid movement of prisoners from institution to institution after very short stays, which immeasurably compounds the problems around for example, prisoners' relationships with their families. The men I spoke to in Wormwood Scrubs a year or so ago were deeply anxious about the institutions they were likely to be moving onto, in an week or a month, because they had no confidence that the sympathetic creative engagement with their families that had been promoted in Wormwood Scrubs would be reproduced anywhere else. The overcrowding causes rapid movement; rapid movement destabilises a very great deal of the very constructive work that is actually done with prisoners and we ought to be worried about that.

Because a penal system that is just and good ought to be one that retains not only the trust of society at large, not only the trust of victims of crime but also the trust of offenders and their families. It can sound quite an odd thing to say but I believe it is very important to say it; that a prisoner ought to be able to trust the environment which he or she finds themselves inside. They ought to regard the power it represents as a trustworthy power. The Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff some years ago described humane punishment as, I quote "... a contract in which the state is bound to respect institutional conditions of justice, and the prisoner gives his consent to the pain of deprivation of liberties he is to suffer". It's a commonplace of much writing about penal policy that the defender should give a notional consent to the punishment.

It can sound odd, and it's often just an academic who puts it that way; yet a system that does not seek to retain and justify the trust of offenders is not a just system. And that is a question applied to prisoners' families, and their wider circle of friends as much as to offenders themselves. So when we speak about problems in the system, about that root problem of overcrowding which affects so much of the prison system, we are speaking of all those factors which make trust unlikely, or indeed sometimes unjustified.

I've spoken about penal policy and defenders: a word needs to be said about the kind of trust a victim of crime needs to have in the system as well. I would say that what the victim of crime needs to be most sure of is this; that a penalty imposed on the offender is not determined or adjusted for wrong reasons, or corrupt reasons, or because of political pressure or to make a point unconnected with the case, or out of ignorance or insensitivity. Victims of crime - and we are all potentially such, and many of actually such - victims of crime need to know that about sentencing policy.

The Criminal Justice Act of 2003 set out five purposes of sentencing, attempting to spell this out. The purposes of sentencing are:- punishment of offenders; the reduction of crime, partly through the deterrent effect of penalties imposed; the reform of offenders; the protection of the public; and the reparation for offences committed..

It's a very good list and I think you'll agree sets out the basis on which an actual or potential victim of crime might trust the system. And if those purposes are in any way undermined by, as I say, a sentencing authority trying to make a point, or to respond to pressure, one way or the other, their trust is lost. My problem though is that the offender needs to have the possibility of seeing the rationale of the penalty in just those terms, and has to have the possibility of seeing the envisaged outcome. This is one of the most difficult and thorny areas, and not only of penal policy A great many people in custody I think would be a little at a loss to express an outcome envisaged by the position they were in. They would know that were being punished, but what else would they know about what the system purposed?

Many questions there which would be interesting to explore further but I just put that as a 'power' question; if a victim needs to know these things about sentencing, the offender, too, needs the possibility of seeing the rationale in those or similar terms and again, needs to know the sentencing policy is not dictated by pressure or wish to make a point. The regular tabloid cry of course, is that prisoners have an easy time, and the assumption behind that is of course the punishment for offenders isn't prison; it's having a deeply unpleasant time in prison.

Those who have any experience of penal institutions will I think have some sense of what the mere fact of being incarcerated means, and sadly that sense is not widely shared in society. It's assumed far too often that mere custody is not enough, and there must be brutalisation as well. But, as it's sometimes been put, justice does not stop crime by itself. If the penal institution itself works by standards incompatible with those of a just society, if it does exhibit itself as trustworthy, if it fails to reconnect the offender with the social organism, in a hopeful and constructive way, it will not show itself as trustworthy. So all the issues we want to raise about justice in society overall, order in society overall, need to be around behind the prison gate, behind the cell door. Is power there being exercised in a trustworthy way? Does it have definable constructive outcomes? And do those outcomes include some kind of reconnection between the offender and society?

Our urgent need in this country is for a penal policy that retains both kinds of trust, the trust of the real or possible victim and the trust of the offender. And our present custodial system is in many ways a poor model. High rates of recidivism, high rates of suicide and self-harm, unevenness of provision and support for families as indicated, but also a set of very difficult questions about morale and professionalism among staff. This is, I think, not a minor point; it is of very great importance that our penal system should be staffed and resourced by people more confident of their own professionalism, who themselves have a commitment and a clarity about what counts, and where that is lacking, where you have a demoralised staff, you'll have once again a recipe for an unjust, not trustworthy system.

I'd like in concluding to suggest five areas of need and concern in relation to our penal policy.

First of all I'd like to see a more candid and better informed debate about physical and social basics in custodial institutions, including those questions about family access, which I've already mentioned. A proper debate about physical and social basics, to include family matters, also to include issues around overcrowding.

Secondly, and obviously, we need clarity about resources needed in fulfilling such basic criteria. What levels of investment are we socially, corporately, prepared to see in this area? It's been said, cynically but not inaccurately, that parties do not get elected on the basis of the prison reform. But why not? If it really is, as I think Churchill once said, the measure of our civilisation how well we treat our prisoners, maybe elections should be won and lost, on how well we treat prisoners and how clearly our outcomes conceived for them. So what are the resources needed? How prepared are we to face the awkward questions that arise there?

Third, we need continuing investment in the pursuit of restorative justice, and rehabilitation goals that connect the offender with the wider community. You have gathered from what I've said already that 'connection' is a word of greatest importance and significance here. Restorative justice is a set of practices requiring high levels of training and patience, and of ordinary human sympathy. We need to go on thinking about how that can become characteristic of more than just a few areas in a few institutions.

Fourthly, we need a system that is just towards prison staff; a system that offers proper professionalism, a sense of achievement, outcomes intelligently planned and effectively pursued. We need a countering of the low morale that besets so many in the prison service.

And I have to add a fifth point here which is certainly a controversial point, which I believe needs to be debated far more candidly than it has been. We need to debate the appropriateness of private franchising of responsibility for the custodial system. That surely is an issue of the greatest importance in the context of trustworthy power. That the prison service is something for which we take public responsibility, seems to me axiomatic as part of the definition of a just and trustworthy society, and a just and trustworthy penal policy. Franchising, creation of private prisons and private security systems of various kinds, seems to be fraught with problems. Again, while I've seen the good results that can be achieved and effective in responsible private prisons - there are such - there is a broad question of principle involved here, which we must not indefinitely shirk.

You've been very patient in listening to these reflections: I hope I have given you, as I said at the beginning, some good reasons to worry. I hope I have also given you some sense of where the points are where differences can be made, and some sense of what good practice looks like, I hope very much to hear more the response about that in the next few minutes.

But finally I want to say that debates about penal policy are never just about prisons and prisoners. As what I've said perhaps has indicated, these debates and concerns send runners out in all directions; they affect our attitudes to childcare, and the welfare of families, they affect our attitude to institutions and professions overall. They affect most fundamentally our attitudes to power, and whether it is to be trusted. And I hope that one thing we can all agree about is that we shall get nowhere with piecemeal reform of the penal system unless we continue to work for a society which is in the sense I have outlined, Just and orderly; trustworthy and able to provide orderly means to bring challenge and question into the public mind.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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