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General Synod: Intervention in the debate on Rethinking Sentencing

Sunday 11th July 2004

An intervention by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the General Synod in York.

Mr Chairman; now is a very good time for this debate to happen in Synod, we not only have coherent and imaginative initiatives from government, we also have the makings of, I say no more than the makings of, a cross-party consensus on this matter. In private, and increasingly in public, members of all the main political parties are prepared to agree that the situation we currently face in our penal policy is simply scandalous, there is no other word for it and I have heard no serious person in public life deny that.

All the more important then for all of us in the times ahead – if we are looking towards a General Election in the next 18 months to two years – all the more important then for us to hold that cross-party consensus up before those who are seeking election. This is the last issue which should be allowed to become an area for political point scoring, though it has frequently been so in the past.

That it is a scandal has already been set out explained, I think, in some details to Synod. I'll just pick up one or two points though that may be worth noting here. As has been said, a Christian ought to regard punishment in this setting as something that brings about change. We currently have a situation in which the expectation of the system is fundamentally that change does not happen. Change does not happen to the offender, it does not happen to the victim, it does not happen in society more widely. And one of the reasons it doesn't happen to the offender is a point which is flagged up in this very helpful GS Misc paper, and that is that programmes of rehabilitation and education within the system are consistently frustrated by the abnormal mobility of prison populations, itself a direct consequence of overcrowding. If people are moved from one prison to another after three months or so, or even shorter periods, to a prison where there is no comparable programme of education to what they may have been having in their first place of custody – then no effect can be looked for. That is increasingly the problem in the system, a problem which flags up the lack of consistency, the lack of national policy about education and rehabilitation within custodial institutions these programmes are frustrated and are not likely to be helped by some of the ideas for further privatised involvement in this area, but that's another matter, and a sensitive one, and I guess one which Synod will want to keep in mind as they reflect on these issues.

There are other areas in which we could speak of scandal. We have heard eloquent testimony from the Bishop of Leicester to the outrageous character of the treatment of children in the system; we have read here and we have heard elsewhere of the problems for women in prison and the disruption to family life, and I strongly suspect that there will be others in this Synod who would be able to speak much more effectively and eloquently about the issues around the ethnic profile of our prisons.

But I wouldn't want to sit down without saying something about the positive side of the motion and actions commended. We're in a good position and, as I say, a good moment to say certain things and to say them clearly as from the church on all of this subject, on this cluster of subjects. We are also though, each of us in different ways, able to undertake some practical involvement and I hope we will take that back from this Synod as well. Link parishes associated with local prisons can be a very significant penumbra of human contact for those in custody which will help them on release. The role of the Mothers' Union in many dioceses in prison visiting is exemplary. There is a huge resource there which can be deployed with great effectiveness in this way. And of course there are countless Christian charities of the formal and less formal kind which take up the cause of young offenders. None of this is, as they say, rocket science; and I trust that none of us going back to our parishes fired by the scandal we're discussing will be able very simply to put some of these practical proposals into effect in our local congregations.

Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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