Criminal Justice Inquiry
Twelve months ago a group of lay faithful and clergy gathered under the auspices of Caritas Leeds and voted for a focus on prisoners, ex-offenders, their families and victims of crime as a priority for action in 2019. This took place within the context of the publication from the Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales ‘A Journey of Hope’ ( 2018).
A steering group of interested individuals was set up who progressed with formulating a briefing paper (full paper can be accessed through this website). This paper in the form of a locally focused inquiry received the full support of Bishop Marcus.
The aims of the Inquiry are to:
- increase Catholics’ knowledge and understanding of the UK’s criminal justice system and the experiences of people in our Diocese who encounter it.
- explore and reflect on different models of restorative justice
- encourage Catholics to take more action to support people encountering the criminal justice system and tackle the injustices they face.
A group of 15 Commissioners were appointed who bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience. These consist of two barristers, a former magistrate, a former Member of Parliament and Government Minister, a prison chaplain, a chief executive of a charity working with ex-offenders, others with a variety voluntary roles and personal experience from the third sector.
Commissioners met regularly and carried out visits, one-to-one meetings and round table discussions with different stake holders within the criminal justice system. This includes prisoners and ex-offenders, senior police officers, local authorities, probation service, youth services, charitable groups focusing on prisoner rehabilitation and employment, agencies involved in victim support and restorative justice. Discussions have also taken place with senior people within the media and safeguarding. Some Commissioners spent a day in Leeds Crown Court, which is the third largest in the country and had a meeting with the ‘Recorder’ for Leeds. Meetings have taken place with academics from the field of criminology, a forensic psychologist and the advisor on victims within the office of the West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner. All this has generated an impressive amount of evidence which we are currently working with to identify gaps in our knowledge and leads to further action and recommendations. We are aware that we need to hear more the voice of women prisoners and ex-offenders, linking with prison chaplains, visit magistrate’s courts and a local prison and insight into the specific challenges experienced by the difficult categories of sex offenders.
We now intend to progress with the following outputs:
- A formal written Report from this inquiry, to be launched by our Bishop and distributed to agencies we have engaged with, local authorities within our diocese, Members of Parliament for the constituencies in our Diocese and the Bishop’s Conference for England and Wales
- Resources offering practical approaches for parishioners to increase engagement and volunteering with agencies involved in supporting prisoners, ex-offenders, their families and victims of crime.
- On-line education and action resources including short podcasts of interviews reflecting the breath of this inquiry.
Our strategy includes holding public hearings. The first of these took place on the 16th. November 2019, part of a daylong event which Caritas Leeds organised to mark the third International Day of the Poor. At this event reference was made to Pope Francis’ recent reflections on criminal justice systems. He suggests that simply locking offenders away is an easier, more convenient approach than to offer all citizens an equal opportunity for development.
Pope Francis added: ‘Today, in a special way, our societies are called to overcome the stigmatisation of those who have committed an error, as instead of offering help and adequate resources to live a worthy life, we have accustomed ourselves to discard more than to consider the efforts the person makes to correspond to God’s love in his life. As Christian communities, we must ask ourselves a question. If these brothers and sisters have already paid for the evil committed, why is a new social punishment put on their shoulders by rejection and indifference?’.
The main aim of this public hearing was to listen to testimonies and to engage in a focused question and answer session with a senior police inspector, a senior member of staff from the probation service and key individuals from two charities focused on rehabilitation and employment of ex-offenders. The audience fully participated and engaged in this event and also offered some initiatives for the Commission leading this inquiry to consider.
Rev. Dr. Joseph D Cortis
Coordinator for Caritas Leeds