Bishop backs restorative justice
Britain's first senior black bishop, the Bishop of Birmingham, has called for a new "restorative justice" approach to crime and punishment, helping bring offenders and victims together to produce "truth and reconciliation".
Despite recent indications that the Home Office may be moving towards such an approach, Bishop John Sentamu also criticised David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, over his "simplistic" demands for longer jail sentences and plans for a rigid system of sentences for murder.
Taking a swipe at the Home Secretary's advocacy of the "theories and practices of retributive justice", Dr Sentamu said it was damaging the wider community.
"We should be concerned at the steady increase in the levels of incarceration and imprisonment, the simplistic approach favoured by successive governments" he said.
"Just as in the Eighties, it was suggested interest rates were being used as a one-club strategy to control the economy, so imprisonment is the one-club strategy employed by successive home secretaries in dealing with the problem of rising crime."
His comments came in the annual Longford lecture.
"The constant fear of appearing to be weak on crime means our prisons are full to bursting as a result of politicians' fear of being labelled the 'criminals' friend'. But this solution isn't working."
He said imprisoning more criminals was "ineffective, inappropriate and expensive" and did very little to tackle the roots of the offending.
Dr Sentamu backed Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, who has questioned the Government's planned changes to the criminal justice system.
He argued that moves to create a Sentencing Guidelines Council flew in the face of separate plans to introduce mandatory sentences for murder convictions. He said: "How can sentences for all crimes be consistent? Each crime is different."
Arguing for the "restorative justice" approach, he said: "It shows that when we look at the world around us and say 'we cannot go on as we are' that there are alternatives waiting to be tried and tested if only we had the courage and the trust to try them. Our need for 'monsters' must not drive a system of justice."
But a Home Office spokesman said the bishop's criticisms appeared "based on misleading press reports rather than the Home Secretary's own words and actions over the past two years".
He continued: "The Home Secretary is developing a range of innovative alternatives to custody through the Criminal Justice Bill and has consistently stood up for the principle that for first-time, non-violent offenders robust community sentences are the most appropriate and effective way to reduce reoffending.
"We make no apology for the Government's stand on tougher sentences for the most serious and dangerous offenders. It is only through ensuring the public are confident the criminal justice system will deal effectively with the most dangerous murderers, sex offenders and other serious criminals can we engage people in a sensible debate about radical and robust alternatives to custody for less serious offenders."