In March, the Victims and Prisoners Bill was introduced to Parliament. The bill started off its life as a piece of legislation dedicated solely to improving the experience of victims through the Criminal Justice System. In its initial form as the ‘Victim’s Bill’, it sought to ensure that agencies working across the sector had an enforceable duty to uphold, and even promote, the rights of the victim by “enshrining the victims code in law”.
The reframed bill includes a host of new measures around, amongst other things, the parole process and parole board members, together reflecting the Conservatives’ “Safer Streets” agenda.
The reincarnated Victims and Prisoners Bill has a significantly widened scope, making a bold statement about the priority and focus being given to victims by the government. Where previously victims were at the heart, they are now sharing the stage.
Combining the victims bill with measures about prisoners and parole, most of which make it more difficult for prisoners to be released, also projects a narrative that victims themselves are advocates of longer and tougher sentences imposed on offenders. In fact, we know from our work at Catch22 that this isn’t always the case. For many victims, the perpetrator may be a loved one, or the outcome they want is simply for the perpetrator to rehabilitate and live a crime-free life.
It is disheartening, therefore, that the new bill sets out an overly punitive approach to justice. For example, by giving ministers the power to veto prisoners’ parole. Parole decisions are complex, and such a measure risks them becoming politicised. More importantly, however, the greatest challenge the justice system will face in the next 5 years is the increase in our prison population, which is predicted to hit 100,000 by 2026. We must, at some point, prioritise rehabilitative solutions over punitive ones; solutions that we know work to reduce reoffending and reintegrate individuals into the community. If we do not, we risk an unmanageable strain on our already over-burdened prison estate. One example of a rehabilitative solution could be a greater use of Restorative Justice, which reduces reoffending (by up to 27%) and has very high victim satisfaction rates, not to mention saves the state £14 for every £1 of investment. It is disappointing to see Restorative Justice excluded as a right enshrined in the Victims and Prisoners bill.
There is concern that even those provisions included in the bill that are dedicated to improving the victim experience do not go far enough in addressing the critical issue of non-compliance with the Victims Code. There is little concrete detail on how accountability will be ensured when the code is not robustly upheld. Moreover, there is no funding package to accompany these new measures. With many services that support victims already under strain, the focus should in fact be on investing in existing services. For example, the government are proposing the introduction of a new Independent Public Advocate (IPA) body, but still haven’t filled the vacancy for the Victims Commissioner. How, then, can we expect a better service for victims?
The Justice sector comprises a complex web of different agencies. Whilst we welcome reforms for provision of victims, it’s only right to recognise that justice for victims and effective processing and rehabilitation of prisoners should not be mutually exclusive outcomes. It is disappointing, therefore, that through the Victims and Prisoners bill they are being conflated. We should strive for a system that prioritises both and neglects neither.