#NQ7: Guest Writer: Hardeep Matharu

Hardeep Mathura is a freelance journalist reporting on justice issues at Byline http://www.byline.com

That those who commit crimes are still a part of our society, the majority of whom will one day walk past us in the street and again live in our communities is an uncomfortable truth conveniently overlooked by most.

How such people are supported through their offending and its consequences should be something that interests everybody. After all, we – each of us – want to live in safe environments in which people can build fulfilling lives and reach their potential; don’t we?

The dual crises engulfing both our prisons and probation services are the ultimate result of a reluctance to even consider how to engage in a wider societal debate about what the role of criminal justice should be and how best its aims can be achieved.

Sadly, few could argue that such a debate is not now desperately overdue.

As suicide, self-harm, violence and drug abuse rockets in our overcrowded, under-staffed prisons, failings in the supervision of offenders has fed into, and been exacerbated by, the state of our jails.

Chris Grayling was warned that splitting probation into two public and private arms would have deep repercussions.

I remember speaking to deflated, passionate probation officers at the time who told me that their work wasn’t a job, but a vocation – it could be immensely challenging professionally and personally, but that they were driven by a strongly-held desire to help people and better society.

While the Probation Inspectorate has noted that many staff are still working to do the very best they can, the sheer uphill struggle presented by the system in its current state must be frustrating beyond belief.

In its latest report of services in Gloucestershire, the Inspectorate found that while the work of the NPS was “reasonably good… efforts to rehabilitate offenders often came to little or nothing”. While the “CRC’s work is so far below par that its owner and government need to work together urgently to improve matters”.

Now, more than ever, we need well-informed reporting of these issues – a discussion in the public domain about how we can solve the current crises consuming our prisons and probation, but also how we can bring about a new social paradigm around our whole approach to criminal justice.

I have been reporting on justice issues since I was a local newspaper reporter for the Epsom Guardian, covering Chris Grayling’s constituency. I was there when Napo’s members marched through the town centre voicing their opposition to Transforming Rehabilitation.

Now, as an independent reporter, I have recently launched a project on the crowdfunded journalism website Byline to explore the questions I have posed above: what are the solutions and where do we go from here?

If we can’t now return to the “advise, assist, befriend” model of probation, how can we move past the more punitive, bureaucratic approach of recent years? How can prisons better prepare offenders for life outside? Who should be ending up in prison, what are its alternatives and how can probation and community-centred social justice play a role here? Which social failures are being passed off as criminal justice shortcomings?

I am keen to hear from anyone who would be willing to share their thoughts and insights – anonymously if required – on any of the issues I have raised. Please feel free to contact me by emailing matharukhardeep@gmail.com or through Twitter @Hardeep_Matharu. A link to my Byline column can be found here: www.byline.com/column/71. Any support would be much appreciated.

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