November 13th has the wonderful label of World Kindness Day. I guess everyone would agree that if there is one thing we all could do with today, it’s a bit of kindness. Not just now and then, as in “random acts of”, but kindness as an attitude. Being kind is often trivialised to mean moments of humanity in an otherwise cut throat, dog eat dog world, but it is much more than that. When kindness moves from doing something kind to being a kind person, or even a kind society, we start to see things change for the good in a real way. If we are kind to our environment, we think about the consequences of what we do to it and alter it if we can. If we are kind to our neighbours we nurture a sense of trust and co-operation which lifts everyone up, and if we expect kindness from those who represent us then maybe we can hope that their actions might reflect that and make for a happier and kinder world.
I wonder though whether we consider that kindness and justice can co-exist in the same frame? Surely so much of our justice thinking is based on retribution and punishment that to even suggest that we should be kind to those we perceive as having offended or harmed us in some way is too difficult. Indeed, I have often heard the view that if you are kind to ‘these people’ they will just exploit it or think you are soft and that only hard, unyielding discipline is of any value. Well, I have to say that, in my experience, kindness generally has a lot more of a lasting impact for good than punitive approaches, and over years of going into prisons or working with people in all sorts of communities from the toughest to the most affluent, I have learned that you can never define people by what they might have done. Each person is different, with a different character and different life challenges or experiences, but those who have known very little kindness in their lives generally do not expect it.
This is a busy period in the justice calendar with a raft of reviews and consultations as we struggle to balance the need for a modern justice system which actually serves to reduce the likelihood of further crime, with a continuing desire from some quarters for justice to be severe and a deterrent to others. This is a delicate balance between what the public believes it wants and what evidence suggests actually works. It is never going to be an easy exercise but maybe if we started from a desire to be kind we would be in a much better place.
Is it kind to imprison those whose mental health is a significant factor in their offending or should we be making greater efforts to manage their health better? Is it kind to put a woman on remand because they may be vulnerable if left in the community when what is needed is support to reduce that vulnerability in the first place? Can it ever be right to separate a mother from her child unless in the most severe of cases? And how can we hope to help someone turn their life around if we start by removing all personal sense of responsibility and sense of ‘place’ by taking away their control over their own lives and then expect that once the sentence is over everything will just be available again?
Kindness should enable us to think of the consequences of our actions, and that includes our policies and laws and to influence how we view others. There is a saying that kindness costs nothing but that is not strictly true, is it? Sometimes it may cost us a bit of pride or self-righteousness, sometimes it might mean that instead of doing the simple thing of enforcing one rule for all we need to think about what is needed for each individual.
I am all for a day to celebrate kindness, but I prefer to hope that we can all try and be kind all of the time, as I am sure we all wish that others would be towards us. A kind justice system is not a soft-on-crime liberal pipe dream, but it is a recognition that people generally respond better to being treated like humans. A kind justice system recognises the impact on victims of crime, but also the impact of punishment on families. It recognises that the trauma experienced through early years has a significant impact on how a person responds to life challenges, and it understands that poverty, compromised education, substance misuse and mental health, lack of suitable accommodation, learning difficulties and hopelessness are all too commonly the drivers behind offending behaviour and exploitation.
A justice system does not exist in isolation, it is generally the mechanism we put in place to manage our failures as a society and, as I have often said before, a really good justice system should be measured by the numbers we keep out of the system, not the numbers we bring in to it. Maybe if we could start from that position we would all be in a much kinder place?