Some people serve a life sentence in six-month instalments – Karyn McCluskey

Many people believe that we should be locking up more people and for longer (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
Many people believe that we should be locking up more people and for longer (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
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When debating crime and justice, everyone wants the same things – less crime and safer communities. But short prison sentences do little to prevent reoffending, writes Karyn McCluskey.

I don’t really ‘do’ Twitter. I realised some time ago that it took up too much time and wasn’t sure it enhanced my life. I periodically share articles that I’ve enjoyed or find interesting (not always the same thing), I like others’ posts and comment supportively when I see something I think is important. With a few notable exceptions, I’m not exposed too often to the truly unpleasant side of social media. But people do disagree with me and tweet to tell me so.

This is a pleasant enough way to kill some time but it has got me thinking about how we engage with those we don’t see eye-to-eye with, particularly in the justice sector. It can be exhausting to do battle with someone with a seemingly diametrically opposing view and so much easier to stay in the bubble, preaching to the converted.

In justice, we are so used to hearing that tired dichotomy of tough versus soft that we may switch off, give up on trying to persuade and trot out the same old lines that only reinforce the chasm, not bridge it. And it is possible to bridge it – when it comes to crime and justice, we all have more in common than not. Everyone wants less crime, everyone wants safer communities. Opinions may differ on how to achieve that, which is why true leaders understand the importance of listening.

READ MORE: Here’s how Scotland can cut its prison population – Karyn McCluskey

It’s vital to move beyond the emotional response we all have when someone disagrees with you, to trying to understand why. Why do so many people believe in more and longer prison sentences? Generally, it’s because they believe it’s the answer to making their community safer. In the justice sector, we know we must imprison those we have reason to be afraid of, but that we have many people who serve life sentences in instalments of six months, which does little to prevent offending. How can we bridge this gap? It’s certainly not by talking to ourselves and rolling our eyes at headlines, but neither is it by throwing out the same facts and figures, hoping this time they’ll change minds.

So how do we convince people that there is another way? That with time, effort and money we can transform our justice system so it delivers our shared ambition? Step one is always to listen and understand – why do they believe differently? What is it that they want? You will often find you want the same things.

READ MORE: Why Scotland needs a dose of American justice – Karyn McCluskey

Secondly is to question how you communicate and the language you use: have you been saying the same things, over and over, to no avail? Then walk a mile in someone’s shoes, consider what would convince them and change your discourse so it fits with their worldview. And speak to everyone, even those who you believe you have nothing in common with. They might surprise you – I have allies for a smart justice system that span political, geographical and ideological divides.

Of course, there are some people that you will never convince, no matter how clever your language or deep your empathy. They may be too entrenched or in too much pain to consider any alternative viewpoint. If you encounter them, don’t provoke them and don’t use them to make a point about how superior you believe your own position is. Dignity and respect should be at the heart of our conversations. Now, more than ever, we need to bring people together, not pull them apart.

And finally, feel free to disagree me – just don’t tweet me.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland