Grab the media by the horns
There is sufficient ground to engender a well-founded belief that penal reform is easier when it doesn’t make eye-catching headlines. We know, from the work of Sentencing Council, that the public is very capable of critiquing sensationalist and selective coverage, but it is precisely this kind of content that is likely to grab and keep their attention. Criminal justice charities, including ours, are acutely aware of this tension, and often make difficult choices between “not saying anything at all” or “taking a punt, but fearing it might make matters worse”. These aren’t decisions we take lightly, but we think a smarter justice framing is possible, through repetition and an honest account of lived experience.
Those of us who have been around long enough might remember that Revolving Doors was in fact founded at the back of a televised fundraising event. In 1992, a report undertaken by Nacro and ITV Telethon identified people who were caught in the cycle of homelessness, mental health, criminal justice services. We called this situation “the revolving door”. This was a group that was invisible and unknown as late as 1990s, but our analysis shows that through repetition of the term “revolving door” they became a visible and key part of public and political debate.
The repetition of key lines made a huge difference in our campaign Short-sighted. Our campaign framed short prison sentences as “short-sighted”, “ineffective”, “disruptive”, creating “volatility and churn” and alternatives as “smarter justice”. We connected with different audiences by talking about “reducing victims” and “reducing crime” as a dual aim. These campaign lines were reiterated in speeches and media interviews by then Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke, and ministers Philip Lee and Rory Stewart. Following David Gauke’s landmark speech (February 2019), the Ministry of Justice reiterated the ambition to “move away from ineffective short prison sentences” (Release on Temporary License reform, 28 May 2019) and a move towards “a smarter justice system that reduces repeat crime by providing…alternatives to ineffective short prison sentences (Probation Reform, 16 May 2019).
This significant repetition in discourse may have been too short-lived to survive a big political shake-up, but there is some indication that the thrust against short prison sentences did deliver change; just not in the way we imagined. Ministry of Justice statistics reveal that the number of people sentenced to a short prison sentence of under six months fell from in 45,616 to 41,368 between our campaign period. The decline represented a rapid fall compared to the trend over the last decade. Could it be possible that Magistrates used existing sentencing guidelines to limit the use of short-term prison sentences simply because their effectiveness was being publicly scrutinised?
Whatever the cause, no one organisation can make a change like this on its own. In this instance it required the backing of the Ministry of Justice, and perhaps that is the point. The campaign messages needed to be echoed again and again by those in power. And when the ministers openly and repeatedly talk about reform, the public follows suit, they change behaviour, they change the justice system.
An honest account of lived experience
Repetition of key messages cannot work without compelling evidence and illustration through real life examples, in this instance understanding the impact short prison sentences have on people’s lives.
From Lisa sharing what it feels like to be released onto the streets from prison, to De cycling in and out of prison to fund an addiction, to Charlotte being left without any support with their mental health needs to Lee who talked about a life sentence paid in stealth when their needs could and should have been addressed somewhere else. Their truthful accounts helped make the case for change, they highlighted the need for urgent action.
The next big challenge
We are currently working on a campaign to transform policing responses and stop a new generation of young adults from being pulled into the revolving door for the same relatively minor and non-violent offences. We believe we can achieve this by large scale police and prosecution-led diversion services that would address three things that tend to drive people into the revolving door: profound and persistent experiences of trauma, poverty, and racism.
We are setting up a New Generation Forum to give young adults a voice in the criminal justice system, particularly policing. Our aim is to bring together a diverse group with experience of repeat contact with policing to create local and national change.
We are frustrated by the negative portrayal of young adults in the media. This is why we want to co-lead the campaign with young adults so that they can demonstrate how they speak truth to power, and tell what matters to them in creative and powerful ways. We have two media specialists lined up to support them in their journey of storytelling, broadcasting and public speaking.