Justice Reform – Free It Up

Prisons across the country are at breaking point. Financially, as a country, we cannot go on like this; the current system is quite simply costing far too much. It is not only failing us financially but socially; overcrowding in prisons, rising levels of violence within them and consistently high reoffending rates. Even a Conservative Justice Secretary, the current incumbent Michael Gove, went so far as to say “It is impossible not to wonder what century our courts are in.”

Surely this must makes you ask the question: how can we fix this?

We all need a fairer, more accessible and quicker justice system that will ultimately benefit all of us. It is time we had a rational debate across party political lines about the direction of justice and I want to see Northern Ireland lead the way.

The poverty trap and high levels of crime have had a vice-like grip on the populace, and innovation in justice is one of the best ways to break the cycle. Northern Ireland isn’t limited to effectively piloting modern justice solutions, but it can become a leader in developing them. It’s time to have a bipartisan conversation around whether or not it is logical, let alone feasible, to continue to put small-time and non-violent offenders in prison, at a massive cost to the already pressed taxpayer.

The NI problem is not exactly undocumented. According to the Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (2010), all thirty of the one hundred most deprived small areas in Northern Ireland were either in or around an interface emerging from high levels of activity during the troubles. Despite the promise of a peace dividend, life for people in these areas has not got much better and in some cases has got worse. Moreover, the majority of these thirty are also included in the top thirty areas for crime in the province.

We need to move the conversation away from patchwork reforms and start talking about serious innovation in justice. Innovation is not something that should just be confined to the private sector as we seek to modernise many of the pillars of government and the public sector, not least ourr chronically outdated justice system.


 Clearly happy that he doesn’t have to talk to kids anymore

Innovation will make it possible to have a positive social impact AND make savings from our public finances that we so desperately need. Mere reforms to patch up a broken system whilst saving a bit here and there are only temporary fixes.

Is it sensible to put a non-violent offender in an institution, only for them to become more acquainted with crime and to then go straight onto welfare at further cost to the taxpayer? Surely it is more effective, sustainable and prudent to identify non-violent, small-time and first-time offenders with the potential for rehabilitation so that they can pay their debt to society in a more productive manner. The taxpayer doesn’t have to pay for them, they spend less time learning from an institution full of harder and more dangerous criminals and society benefits from the work they do during their rehabilitation, as well as the reduced risk of reoffending.

Justice Committee at NI Assembly level can, through no fault of the individuals involved, become too preoccupied with administrative work and investigating and reviewing things after they’ve gone wrong rather than dreaming up the ideas and policies that will prevent things going wrong. So, it has been encouraging to see their members forge relationships between those involved in the legal system that are essential to unlocking innovative and fresh ideas for justice.

Examples of potential innovations include: early interventions in education and health amongst those young people most at risk, work and education programs that ensure offenders pay their debt to society, and equipping them with skills that will help them turn their lives around once the formal rehabilitation is complete.

Democratic Unionist Chair of the Justice Committee, Alastair Ross MLA, has created “Justice Seminars” which provide the space for the sort of ideas we need to be heard, discussed and critiqued. I am glad that in Northern Ireland work has already begun. The monthly ‘Justice Innovation Seminars’ look at new approaches in justice and evidence-based, outcome driven policy proposals. With more approaches like this, I’m sure we can find the solutions we so desperately need to benefit all of us.

We have seen some other unexpected champions of justice reform. Notably, Texas Governor Rick Perry has actively diverted non-violent offenders away from prison and into education and rehabilitation programs. Just one example of the success of Perry’s post-partisan reforms is the improved efficiency, reduced costs and improved outcomes of Texas’s drug courts.

Gov._Perry_CPAC_February_2015Current Status: not President

When Gov. Perry took office, Texas had just seven drugs courts. With poor outcomes from the incarceration of those who needed treatment and needless astronomical costs, Perry committed to finding smarter ways to reduce crime. By expanding to one-hundred and fifty five drugs courts instead of just seven and opening 19 innovative Veteran’s Treatment Courts, Texas has seen serious results, financially and socially. Since 2007, an estimated $2 billion has been saved in new prison spending and three prisons and six juvenile centres have been closed. State-wide crime is at its lowest levels since the 1960s and Perry’s reforms have brought about a 39% reduction in the parole failure rate.

Choosing the right interventions saves the public purse by keeping people out of prison and saves society the trauma of high crime rates by reducing offending and reoffending rates. It’s not about left or right or conservative and liberal – it’s about what works and what doesn’t work. Justice reform is a win-win no brainer and it’s time to have a serious conversation as to how we go about it.




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