By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
On Thursday, Bishop Richard Moth, the lead Catholic Bishop for prisons of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales reacted to the sentencing reforms made public on Wednesday.
Catholic vision rooted in hope and reconciliation
Bishop Moth welcomed the government’s planned reforms as steps toward “piloting problem-solving courts”, and “improving pre-sentence reports and reforming criminal records.”
He reiterated that the Catholic Church has a history of supporting these types of “measures as part of our vision for a criminal justice system rooted in hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation.”
In addition to ensuring public safety, he added that the government must not neglect other areas such as restorative justice and alternatives, where appropriate, to prison sentences.
Smarter approach to sentencing
Bishop Moth's remarks came a day after the Ministry of Justice for the UK a paper containing proposals for sentencing reform. Entitled A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, the document explores the role of sentencing and identifies problems in the current system in order to provide a “vision for reform.” It then applies this approach to serious offenders and their supervision in the community, probation, reducing reoffending and sentences for minors.
In his foreword to the document, the Rt Hon Robert Buckland, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, acknowledges a reform of the sentencing system is needed. He called the present system “complex and…too often ineffectual.” Buckland says that not only does the general public find the system hard to understand, but that even “courts can find it cumbersome and difficult to navigate.” The proposed changes are meant to respond to “the true nature of the crime” while at the same being flexible enough to “give offenders a fair start on their road to rehabilitation.”
Catholic vision proposed
This is not the first time Bishop Richard Moth has addressed this issue. In 2018 he commissioned a document entitled A Journey of Hope which proposes a Catholic vision of sentencing reform and includes the input of a “wide range of experts.” In the foreword to that document, Bishop Moth said prisons in England and Wales are “struggling to cope.” They are “characterised by poor living conditions, high levels of violence and self-harm, widespread use of psychoactive drugs, and prisoners being left in their cells for up to 22 hours a day,” he said.
Such conditions are not only “undignified” but hardly provide an atmosphere in which offenders would want to “turn their lives around,” he noted. One reason Moth proposed sentencing reform was necessary is because the one in force has “created an unsustainable prison population” in structures that cannot provide “a safe, decent or rehabilitative environment.”
Putting the victim first
A Catholic vision puts the victim first A Journey of Hope states. Thus, the criminal justice system needs to meet victims' needs as well as deter offenders, thus reducing the number of victims. The document also points out that England and Wales “has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe”, while crime has been declining. This is the effect of a sentencing system that tends to hand down prison sentences creating an unsustainable scenario in the prison system itself. Reducing short-term sentencing in favour of alternatives, such as successfully proven “community sentences”, was proposed. A Journey of Hope also recommended that the “complex needs” of offenders be recognized so as to “determine the right sentence” for each person.
In conclusion A Journey of Hope summarizes the Catholic vision for sentencing reform thus:
“We must help offenders to return to the right road by building a system which enables them to do so. We have a duty to support both victims of crime and those who have offended by helping them to undertake a journey of hope, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption.”