There are no low-cost options when it comes to justice - Karyn McCluskey

Picture: Pixabay
Picture: Pixabay
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Things that matter cost money. We all know this. We might all love a bargain, (as the record number of sales on US-import as Black Friday shows, but we also understand that there aren’t really that many bargains out there. If you want quality, you have to pay for it.

What does quality mean in the context of the justice system? It’s probably the same that we expect from anything else we spend significant amounts of money on we buy: does it work, does it do the job we paid it to do?

And perhaps that’s where it all starts to get muddy. Our feelings about what justice is and what the justice system should do has, over the years, been buffeted by thundering headlines and grandstanding political sermons. What is fair or unfair towards those have committed crimes or had them committed against them dominates discussions and the eternal struggle is between victims and those who’ve offended. The public narrative is that you can’t be for both.

Those of us who have experience of this area – whether professionally or personally – know that, like everything involving human beings, it’s not that simple. Sometimes the victims of crime have been perpetrators and vice versa, sometimes underlying drivers like trauma, deprivation, addiction and mental health trap people in this cycle of offending and offended against. Of course it’s easier to think about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people and it’s not so comfortable to think about those orbiting the justice system as vulnerable and in need of help, but the hard facts are: it’s true.

So what does this have to do with quality and value for money? In Scotland we spend a vast amount on justice, funding the police, courts, custody and community sentences. We should absolutely expect for these vital public services to be based upon the best evidence of what works to give us maximum bang for our buck. What works to prevent crime, prevent further harm and improve lives. To do that, it has to be responsive to specific situations and use with the right tool for the job. It must meet people as individuals with particular needs, strengths and weaknesses. Something as expensive as our justice system should be modern, smart, innovative and use the best methods available to reduce crime, reduce the number of victims and help people become productive, healthy citizens. But despite the ‘best evidence’ telling us that short periods in prison are not the most effective way to deliver this, we still have an unacceptably high prison population – nudging 8,000 as you read this. Why?

You will get bored of me saying this long before I get tired of it, but the right sentence in the community can have be transformative effects. It does less damage to the individual and affords more opportunities to change a person’s life for the better. It is associated with lower reoffending rates and the unpaid work element provides a tangible benefit to the community. For the right person, at the right time, a community sentence in the community can change everything – and yet so many of these people are resigned to the merry-go-round of prison, homelessness, addiction and chaos.

In a sector which Justice needs people of passion to work in for it; conversely the public discourse needs a lot less passion and a bit more pragmatism. This isn’t about comparisons of the cost of a custodial versus a community sentence or what is more of a punishment – it’s about value for public money and, more importantly, the value we put on people’s lives. There are no low-cost or no-cost options when it comes to justice. If we want a safer country, we need to invest in the services that make people better. And that means thinking with our heads in a logical, practical way, and not with our fickle and flighty hearts.

• Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland