Campaigners welcome new Ministry of Justice

By staff writers
9 May 2007

Campaigners have welcomed the establishment of the new Ministry of Justice but warned that it faces huge challenges.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, which has supported the idea of a Ministry dedicated to the criminal justice system for more than half a century, urged that the new ministry pilot alternatives to custodial sentences.

In particular the new ministry is seen by some as an opportunity to expand existing programmes based on ideas of restorative justice, which can cut reoffending rates and provide greater satisfaction for the victims of crime. At their heart are ideas about repairing the damage done by crime, rather than meeting out swift punishment.

But Lord Falconer refused to answer detailed questions about the steps he will take to reduce prison overcrowding which is already at crisis point.

Speaking after an early morning visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison in west London, Lord Falconer said he intended to strengthen public protection, cut reoffending and enhance the justice system.

It came as the Home Office was split, with its responsibilities for jails, probation and sentencing policy being transferred to a new beefed-up Department of Constitutional Affairs.

Renamed the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the department faces a severe problem in jails in England and Wales, where the population has reached an all time high of more than 80,300.

Lord Falconer said: "This was a good way to start the Ministry of Justice, demonstrating I hope that the situation of the Ministry of Justice is to get better results for the public.

"That is its one aim in changing arrangements.

"By better results for the public I mean reducing reoffending, better public protection and a justice system both criminal, family and civil that delivers quicker results."

Asked about prisons overcrowding, he added: "In terms of details of prison policy I will be making a statement to Parliament later in the day.

"But this morning the critical point is to say the Ministry of Justice is going to bring better results to the public."

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said today: "The new Ministry must pilot a significant and sustained reduction in the use of custody and the development of effective community sentences. The short term crisis of prison overcrowding can only be solved by investing long term in a sentencing structure that puts protecting victims and reducing re-offending at its core. Community sentences should be based on the idea of healing the damage done by crime, helping offenders to change their lives and make amends. We hope that this heralds a new age of rational policy formulation"

The charity highlighted its concern that overcrowding in local prisons, particularly with the influx of people on indeterminate sentences, was increasing violence towards staff and other inmates. The possibility of 25,000 people with no release date and nothing to do all day contained in local prisons with no facilities is one of the most pressing challenges facing the new Ministry. The possibility of real violence this summer, including riots, suicides or murders, is real.

The director is meeting with the Lord Chancellor this week to discuss plans for the new Ministry.

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