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Need for fresh ideas on justice in Northern Ireland

By Alastair Ross

Published 22/02/2016

Chairman of Stormont's Justice Committee, Alastair Ross
Chairman of Stormont's Justice Committee, Alastair Ross

Politicians often talk about being "soft" on crime or "tough" on crime, but how often do we hear mention of getting "smart" on crime?

The truth is that, unless we make our criminal justice system smarter, then thousands of young people are destined to enter the revolving door of the criminal justice system - and it is the taxpayer who foots the bill.

At the most basic level, we need to ensure that our criminal justice system has at its disposal a range of options.

Most people only see the criminal justice system as being about punishment, but equally as important are the other two components: deterrence and rehabilitation.

If we are truly to embrace the idea of a smarter system, then we should be focusing on what works and what doesn't work. We must also recognise the importance of rehabilitation.

In recent months I have had the opportunity to observe three judges who do just that. Judge Ferdinand in Brooklyn Treatment Court, Judge Calabrese in Red Hook Community Court and Sheriff Wood in Glasgow Drug Court all embrace the problem-solving model of justice.

Put simply, problem-solving courts work on the premise that, unless you solve the underlying reason why people offend, then we cannot stop them from reoffending.

Take someone with addiction issues who steals in order to feed their drug habit. Will locking them up for a short prison sentence stop them from stealing again once released? The evidence suggests no.

Therefore we should look to what is happening in places like Brooklyn and Glasgow, where the courts offer an offender the opportunity to stay out of prison if they agree to regular testing and to attend an intensive rehabilitation and supervision programme.

In Northern Ireland we can keep making incremental change to our criminal justice system, to tinker around the edges, or we can be bold, embrace innovative models proven to work and create a more cost-effective, efficient and fairer system that actually makes a difference in people's lives.

Alastair Ross MLA is chairman of the Assembly's justice committee

Belfast Telegraph

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