On Monday I found myself at two events that were featured in the news. The first was the launch of Bowel Cancer Information; a service that provides helpful hints for spotting symptoms early, and raises awareness of a disease that kills many people. It was fronted by Lynn Faulds Wood who survived bowel cancer twenty years ago and eminent medical specialists at the launch urged the 40 leaders of the attending large organisations to pass on this message to their thousands of members. Visit their website at www.bowelcancer.tv.
The other was the launch of a report from the Make Justice Work Campaign entitled Community or Custody. The project, out of which came the report, was "considering the most effective sentences for the great number of low-level offenders who are currently filling our prisons to breaking point - and who leave prison only to offend again". The report concluded that intensive community sentences do have an important role to play in greatly reducing reoffending rates and play a major part in rehabilitation of offenders provided such schemes set necessary rigorous standards. This outcome mirrors the demand of the WI's Care not Custody campaign. A prison sentence, whether long or short, only serves as at least a holding measure in so many cases, or at worst, an intensification of the mental health and/or other problems that brought the individual into the criminal justice system in the first place.
At the launch I met a woman who was termed as a service user because of mental health issues and difficulties engendered in her childhood. Even though she worked hard and had risen to a high status in her professional life, "when it all got too much" she began to drink and this eventually this brought her to the notice of the criminal justice system. She told me "when it came to sentencing, I could have gone to prison. I was sentenced to an Intensive Alternative to Custody Order for 12 months. This meant I would be attending at least five appointments every week and that I would have some discipline to avoid returning to custody." She added that had she gone to prison, she knew she would not have coped and her entire family would have been torn apart. This is what happens to so many women who are sent to prison.
Sharing of information across agencies dealing with any one case also needs to be the norm. Last Friday I attended a seminar at Salford University at the Centre for Prison Studies where I learned that "information sharing is key to continuity of care". Concrete evidence of this has now been developed in a research project by the Offender Health Research Network and with proof of such initiatives working, surely this has to be replicated across the country. All of this, combined with the promise of that £5 million for 100 diversion schemes across the country revealed last March at the WI's Care not Custody reception by Secretary of State Andrew Lansley, surely send out a strong message to everyone involved: "please get on with it".