Hurt people hurt people: the case against criminal punishment as retribution
Will harsher sentences provide adequate healing to victims, and protect our communities from harm? This is the question Transform Justice Director and former magistrate Penelope Gibbs asks in this piece, where she unpacks the concept of criminal punishment as retribution, and considers whether that serves victims and society as a whole.
Desmond Tutu and his friend Nelson Mandela were wise men who understood that prison was a dead end. In England and Wales we are building 20,000 new prison places. We are the only country in Western Europe or America to be increasing our prison population. But there are very few opposing voices.
The reason why there is such strong support for criminal punishment isn’t because of evidence, but simply because we believe in it. We think those who do wrong deserve harsh punishment because they chose to take the wrong path. We also think that environment, peer group and poverty are drivers of crime, but the dominant belief is that those who make their bed should lie in it. Nearly half the population of England and Wales still support the death penalty.
So how do we get people from believing in retribution to both pulling people out of the water and stopping more falling in?
Everyone, including victims, wants less crime and reoffending and for the harm done to be healed. The public think that this can be achieved through police, prosecution and prison. But, unfortunately, it can’t. Most criminal sanctions are purely punitive. So they satisfy the citizen’s need for retribution but don’t help reduce crime. People who commit crime are as likely to be offered rehabilitation if the police resolve the crime out of court as if they get a court sanction. Most people convicted in the magistrates’ court get sentenced to pay a fine. This is water off a duck’s back for someone wealthy, but impossible to pay for someone poor.
Most of those sentenced to imprisonment, serve less than six months. Short sentences are not rehabilitative but are long enough to cause prisoners to lose housing, jobs and relationships.
Transform Justice’s vision is of a system where fewer people are imprisoned, fewer prosecuted and few criminalised. But none of this will be realised until victims understand what the formal criminal justice system delivers and until their needs are better met. Victims, like most people, assume that their hurt and anger will be relieved by the court process and the punishment it meets out. But victims are not and never will be central to our adversarial criminal justice process. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutes on behalf of the State, not the victim. Victims only have a voice in court in very limited circumstances.
That involves being realistic about the court system and not pretending it can deal with all their hurt. It means offering every victim a space to talk, whether or not they want to cooperate with a prosecution, and whether or not their crime is resolved.
Only a tiny minority of victims are currently offered this chance to find out why and how, to forgive (if they want to) and to have those who harmed them make amends.
Many victims’ organisations think victims’ needs would be served by a more victim-focussed court system and harsher punishments. Sadly, neither are likely to repair the harm done by crime. Of course, courts could communicate better and minimise delays, but the court system is never going to deliver healing to victims. Victims want to know why they or their loved ones were the target, and to be reassured that the harmer is unlikely to do it again. No adversarial court ever provides clear answers as to why or explains exactly how the sanction will prevent future crime. No wonder so many victims say they felt more traumatised by the court process than the original crime.
That involves being realistic about the court system and not pretending it can deal with all their hurt. It means offering every victim a space to talk, whether or not they want to cooperate with a prosecution, and whether or not their crime is resolved. And every victim should be offered some kind of restorative justice – the ability to communicate directly with the person or people who committed the crime. Only a tiny minority of victims are currently offered this chance to find out why and how, to forgive (if they want to) and to have those who harmed them make amends.
Many of those who commit serious crimes were victims themselves. Hurt people hurt people. Which is why we need to stop people falling in the river and quickly pull out those who do fall in to prevent them getting swept away.
The drivers of crime are poor mental health, poor education, poor housing, domestic abuse and poverty. Address these, meet victims’ needs better and we will reduce crime and reoffending.