Report on live debate: Tower of London, 23 March 2011

Freelance journalist Liz Lightfoot summaries the debate at the first Leicester Exchanges live event, which took place in London on Wednesday 23 March 2011. The topic under discussion was: ‘Should we punish or reform offenders?’


The Leicester Exchanges debate panel

The Leicester Exchanges debate panel

Boy George sweeps the streets of Manhattan while in Hampstead George Michael is sentenced to eight weeks in jail.

It’s a story of two very different penalties handed down to celebrities in America and the UK that encapsulates the debate about sentencing. And which was the most successful?

In terms of humiliation, five days sweeping the streets with blue bags was much more embarrassing and effective, claims Blair Gibbs, the head of crime and justice policy at the Policy Exchange.

But such is the approach to ‘community pay-back’ in parts of the UK that the singer might have ended up behind the scenes, sorting clothes in a charity shop, he told a distinguished audience gathered at the Tower of London for the first Leicester Exchanges live debate yesterday.

If the purpose of sentencing is both to punish and rehabilitate then which penalties are the most effective? Judges, policy makers, academics and representatives from civil rights and justice organisations came together to answer the question at the event.

The importance of public sentiment is shown by the way the courts deal with celebrities, said Gibbs. Sentencers know when dealing with high profile offenders – such as MPs convicted of fraudulent expense claims – that there is only one method that the public regards as punishment, and that is prison.

Community sentences have been improved over the years but if they are to work as a true alternative to prison, the punishment element has to be strengthened.

“If we lose the punishment then we lose the public and, unfortunately, the current verdict of the public on community sentences is that they are weak and poorly enforced and a third are not completed,” he said.

“How many would regard working in an animal rescue centre or serving tea in a luncheon club as a punishment? My plea would be to make unpaid work a punishment. Clearing graffiti, cleaning streets or monuments are jobs that involve manual labour outside in the community and that’s what the public sees as a punishment.”

Carol Hedderman and Blair Gibbs

Carol Hedderman (Professor of Criminology at the University of Leicester) and Blair Gibbs (head of crime and justice policy at the Policy Exchange)

The public may demand prison sentences but do they offer any opportunities for rehabilitation in such a short time? The problem with short sentences is illustrated by Home Office research which showed offenders who had jobs, homes and social stability when they went in to prison very often had lost them by the time they came out, said panellist Carol Hedderman, Professor of Criminology at the University of Leicester.

“We are making more victims by using short prison sentences on some of the people currently going into prison, and we are doing so at a very high cost,” she said.

Around 50,000 of the 93,000 prisoners received into custody each year are serving sentences of six months or less and a further 10,000 between six months and a year.

“The idea that we are saving imprisonment for the worst of our offenders is questionable,” she said.

Sentencers need more flexibility to match the punishment to the offender and perhaps take a bit of a gamble instead of having their hands tied by guidelines, she said.

“Community justice courts and drug courts can do that more effectively,” she added.

Ex-offender turned criminal justice consultant Mark Johnson pointed to the mismatch between the idea that people commit crime out of a moral choice and are responsible for their actions, and the reality. Many people in prison are there as a result of a drug habit, alcohol abuse or mental health and personality disorders, he said.

Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson, special advisor to the National Probation Service

Mr Johnson, now a special advisor to the National Probation Service as well as an author, Guardian columnist and founder of the charity Uservoice, said: “I would argue that locking up people behind a wall removes responsibility and creates irresponsible people. Incarceration and loss of liberty is a punishment but there are so many other losses that perhaps the sentencers don’t consider, such as family and personal life and also, that which is most important to me personally, the life long stigma attached to it.”

Mr Johnson had a history of serious crime, homelessness and drug abuse before he went through rehabilitation at the age of 29. He told the debate that there were too few opportunities for reform behind the prison walls. Recently in Wormwood Scrubs a man who had spent 12 years in prison told him of his anger that he was to be tagged and put on restrictive movements on his release. “I am not a wrong ‘un, there’s no victims to my crime, I burgle offices,” he said.

“I challenged him and said there is no such thing as a victimless crime and his face went bright red, he was really angry and resentful,” Mr Johnson said. “What worries me is that we are in a situation where this guy has spent 12 years of his life taking up public money and he has had not one deluded belief about himself taken away, not one challenge made about what he is doing. And we have a group of people outside waiting for him to do the inevitable.”

Calling for more imaginative approaches to sentencing, he said community sentencing in its present form was not the answer.

“Community payback is seen by many who get sentenced to it as pointless. Painting a fence or smashing up video tapes in a basement is pointless and not rehabilitation. And what humiliation do the high visibility vests cause in the people who have to wear them and become even more detached from society?”

Heather Munro

Heather Munro, Chief Executive of the London Probation Trust

Heather Munro, the Chief Executive of the London Probation Trust, said it was wrong to see prison as punishment and community sentences as reform, as there should be elements of both in each.

Politicians talk about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime but the causes have got lost, she said.

“Instead of concentrating on whether we are punishing or reforming, we need to take account of other factors such as the outcomes of different sentences on different offenders and the effectiveness rate and costs,” she said.

“Do we really want to punish the bad and the mad because as a society we have failed them?”

Far from being an easy option, community sentences had a huge element of punishment because they were demanding that people change their behaviour.

“If you have ever tried to get fit, diet or cut down on alcohol then you know how very difficult and painful it can be to change behaviour,” she said.

She believed the Probation Service was being hampered by the current emphasis on law enforcement, making sure that people comply to the detail of their orders rather than finding a tipping point in their lives when rehabilitation could start.

From the floor, a member of the audience added that the current Green Paper Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders had outcome and payment-by-results as a policy focus.

“It is going to be tricky but we are looking forward to making it work,” she said. Increasing professional discretion was another policy objective.

“I am interested in exploring whether the courts need additional sentencing options in order for offenders to face punishment for their crimes or whether it is a case of making the existing options in the community work better to punish or reform or rehabilitate,” she said.

The four panellists rejected the idea from a contributor to the Leicester Exchanges internet debate that the whole criminal justice system needed a complete overhaul, saying they believed the existing options and structures could be improved with more attention paid to what was effective in the UK and elsewhere.

But John Thornhill, the chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said it was important to remember that seven of every 10 custody receptions were people who had already served a prison sentence.

“What do you do when you have a 27-year-old before you who has committed an act of violence against a public servant which caused serious injury and the bench had taken a brave view and said it would use a community penalty and now he is standing before you for breaching that penalty on seven occasions? We have to find more solutions and a wider range of programmes,” he said.

“We need early intervention to tackle the underlying causes of offending behaviour where society has failed the people before us. We do not need the criminal justice system to clear up the mess that other elements of society have ignored.”

Video Interviews

Short interviews with each of the four debate panellists answering the question ‘Should we punish or reform offenders?’



The Live Debate

An edited version of the live debate.


Leicester Exchanges would like to thank all those who contributed to the live event and the online debate. A special thanks goes to Professor Sir Robert Burgess, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester for expertly chairing the debate. You can continue to have your say on the question Should we punish or reform offenders? on this site.

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