‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ was a mantra of the Blair government, as it has been for politicians of all hues when seeking votes.
The reality is much more complex with many of those involved in the criminal justice system experiencing significant levels of trauma, mental health problems and addictions, as well as complex life histories of abuse, looked-after care and homelessness.
As one leading academic has argued: “Essentially societies that do not believe that offenders can change will get offenders who do not believe that they can change”. At Sheffield Hallam University, the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice (HKC) has been established to help address the needs of this and other vulnerable groups.
The promotion of ‘social justice’ is key for the HKC. Our central values are those of widening access to justice and education, the promotion of human rights, ethics in legal practice, equality and a respect for human dignity in overcoming social injustice.
From April 3-7, the HKC and the Sheffield Institute of Policy Studies (SIPS) will host our third Social Justice Week. Events will include women’s access to justice; public policing and policing the future; a discussion on the effectiveness of European protection of human rights; the impact of researching marginalised communities; and an international conference on how to support desistance from offending and recovery from substance problems.
A public event (on Wednesday April 5) will discuss citizenship. The fundamental premise for the event is that the successful rehabilitation of offenders (particularly those with substance misusing problems) is a contract in which communities and professionals play a central role.
We get what we pay for, and if we choose to exclude stigmatise and punish offenders and make aspects of these punishments irreversible, then we create an excluded group who have little choice but to revert to illegal means of filling their time and their bellies.
While individuals require significant motivation and commitment to overcome both their adverse experiences and the stigma and negative labels associated with offending and substance use, they can only go so far.
Access to opportunities, hope, connections and the ability to shed ‘spoiled identities’ require communities that care and will re-engage.
We know that some of the strongest predictors of reintegration are homes that are safe, opportunities for meaningful employment that affords a sense of pride as well as a living wage and connections to family and community. Yet punitive policies around disclosure means that for many people who have offended in their youth, access to such everyday opportunity is blocked, and we as a community effectively prevent the application of what the evidence-base tells us.
However, these blocks occur not only at the level of institutions but also in neighbourhoods and communities.
Our own research suggests that professionals and the general public have limited belief in the extent to which alcoholics, addicts and offenders can be genuinely rehabilitated and they act accordingly by distancing themselves from people they believe are mired in their drug use and offending. The effect is the same at the local level - exclusion, stigmatisation and frustrated attempts at reintegration.
Social justice is about not only tackling inequalities and discrimination - it has a much more positive purpose and function that is about promoting citizenship and openness in institutions and in communities.
The work we are doing around Social Justice Week and more generally in the Helena Kennedy Centre and SIPS is our commitment to raising awareness, improving our communities and creating meaningful pathways to reintegration. Why? Because societies and cities where that happens are not only fairer and more equal, they are better, safer and happier places for all of us to live.
The aim of all of the events in Social Justice Week will be to initiate discussion between academics, policy makers, practitioners and the general public. There are no ivory towers for this event and the aim is that through this process we will create engagement and activism.
Ultimately, we can challenge stigma, inequality and exclusion through the power of human connection and each of the events we are hosting has that ultimate objective.
We know that contact reduces discrimination and that connection improves wellbeing - and Sheffield is at the centre of a range of activities that are championing connection and belonging as pathways to health for individuals and wellbeing for the city.
Social Justice Week (April 3-7) is a week of free public events across Sheffield that seeks to engage local communities in understanding the challenges and barriers to achieving social justice, tackling tough issues such as human trafficking, recovering from drug addiction and policing.
For more information on Social Justice Week events, including the Citizenship event, visit https://goo.gl/IFa5Hx.