05 Dec

How a relational approach saves the justice system money

Barbed wire, prison

AUSTIN/CAMBRIDGE – When Texas Republican Congressman Jerry Madden  was appointed as chairman of the House Corrections Committee in 2007, he did so by saying, “Don’t build new prisons. They cost too much”. Since then Texas saw crime levels reduced and three prisons being closed, according to a report by Danny Kruger for BBC News. But that’s not where it ends. The most interesting part is that the project that started out of a financial concern, now receives applause for its relational and inclusive approach.

So what is it that Texas discovered? The impact of relationships! Don’t treat the offender as an individual unit of criminality. Instead of an institutional approach and trying to tackle socio-eonomic factors that might have made the offender more vulnerable to commit crime, the “The Right on Crime”-initiative started looking at the offender and his or her personal choices. Another key point is that most offenders are getting worse instead of better when in prison. Incarcerating offenders together carries the risk of forging closer relationships inside the criminal community. And finally, the importance of keeping an offender connected to the world and community outside prison. Initiatives developed in Texas include a scheme where prisoners are matched with business people and where they, upon release, are settled in residential community. And the statutory system offers “immediate, comprehensible and proportianate sanctions for bad behaviour plus accountaibility to a kind leader and supportive community”, writes Kruger.

Despite the apparent success of the Texas-aspproach, what seems to be missing is the reference to the relational context of the offender and the impact on third parties. A large number of crimes are committed against other individuals, and represent a trauma within a particular relationship – even if the offender and the victim have not previously interacted. Also, criminality itself is often associated with problems in offenders’ past relationships, including, typically, a dysfunctional family background or a sense of exclusion from social groups. In other words, it is hard to understand or rehabilitate an offender if the relational context is not being taken into account.

But in the end, what the story does highlight is that money cannot solve problems that are caused by a lack of strong relationships. As Kruger states: “It cuts crime, saves money and demonstrates love and compassion towards some fo the most excluded members of society. It is, in a sense (…) a realistic visionof a smaller state, where individuals are accountable for their actions and communities take responsibility for themselves and their neigbours.”

For more on Relational Justice, please read further on our website page Relational Justice



  • Relational Thinking

    From one of our readers via email:

    “I was part of a panel of lay and professional judges a few years ago. The offender had a good job, no previous criminal record but he had a tendency to beat people up. The only possible sentence in our penal system was to send him to jail where he would team up with other offenders. I suggested that the real need was to provide the offender with help to control his temper, even if he also had to serve a prison sentence, but there was no such provision available. After this, my first attempt as a lay member of the panel of judges, I wrote to the courts stating that I was unwilling to serve in this capacity in the future unless the prime objective of the penal system was changed to prevent the offenders re-offending. Unfortunately I have never been able to serve in this capacity again”

    Recognize this or do you have your own story/experience? Tell us here!