‘Prison is not the only response to crime’ says head of NIACRO

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Olwen Lyner, Chief Executive of NIACRO

Olwen Lyner, Chief Executive of NIACRO, believes it is vital that community and voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland are encouraged to offer support to all those who have offended

Crime (and how to respond to it) is a topic on which almost everyone has a view and there are many ways we can view what goes on within our justice system. Last year, for example, just over 28,000 cases went through the Magistrates and High Courts in Northern Ireland. Of these, 83.3 percent resulted in a conviction. Interestingly, 44.1 percent of these convictions were motoring related. Of those convicted of all offences, 55.6 percent received a monetary penalty and 12.3 percent a prison sentence

Public and media debate often focuses on prison as the solution to crime or offending behaviour. However, prison is not and cannot be the appropriate response to all crime. It is interesting to consider what happens to those who do not receive prison sentences, particularly as significant efforts are currently being made to develop alternatives and so divert people from prison. Such alternatives include the Enhanced Combination Order, supervised by PBNI but involving partners from the community and voluntary sectors to support people throughout their Order. The Department of Justice is also trialling Problem-Solving Justice Courts; opportunities for people appearing in court, who face complex needs, to engage with specialist support –sometimes connected through links into the community and voluntary sectors which, if entered into, could influence sentencing.

The reasons why people find themselves before the courts can be complex. Most of those who we connect with at NIACRO have experienced a range of social problems – many of which have been the focus of previous issues of VIEW. These problems are not an excuse for offending, but they help us to understand why people offend, and more importantly, what kind of support and engagement might be helpful. Moreover, it highlights the need to be responsive to these issues. We want to help the individual who has offended to lead a better and more fulfilling life away from crime. Our concern is, therefore, that support services contribute to reducing further offending, thereby reducing harm to future victims.

It is vital that any society has a process that engages with those who have broken its laws, but it is never enough to leave it there. In the Programme for Government (PfG), the Northern Ireland Executive committed to “a safe community where we respect the law, and each other” (Outcome7). The PfG held out an ambition to drive resources to the frontline and this represented an opportunity for the community and voluntary sectors to support the delivery of associated outcomes. Early conversations at the top of government gave hope of a new era. This was characterised by collaboration at a range of levels across sectors and organisations.

For NIACRO and other third sector organisations working in the criminal justice field –many of whom feature in this issue – it would mean partnerships with statutory criminal justice agencies. When this works well, it allows us to offer services and support to individuals, in custody and in the community, in a triangulated relationship with their statutory supervisor. This model represents an effective means of supporting desistance from crime and increased well-being for the individual.

But we need more. As outlined above, not everyone receives a prison or community supervision order. It is therefore vital that community and voluntary organisations are encouraged to offer support to all who have offended. We need more engagement with and between groups that have the potential to help people to re-integrate into their own communities and family life.We have heard many times that our sector is a crowded field, but that analysis is often as a response to funding calls. It is not a sensible recognition of the social fabric that the third sector offers as it places itself in a difficult space, engaging with the complex social problems that leave people in distress.

In sponsoring this edition, NIACRO is shining a light on the need to have ambition in line with the PfG. It needs to be a ‘programme for all’. For this to be achieved, we need all sectors, across all Departments to embrace the challenge and be willing to play a part; to be encouraged to act cooperatively not forced into unnecessary competitive relationships.

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