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Howard League blog · 18 Jul 2023

Dr Martin Wright: What’s wrong with criminal justice?

Portrait photo of Dr Martin Wright, former Director of the Howard League for Penal ReformOn 12 July 2023, we held a special event at City, University of London to celebrate the achievements of Dr Martin Wright, a former Director of the Howard League.

Martin, who led the Howard League from 1971 to 1982, has enjoyed a long and varied career, including time spent as a prison visitor, a librarian at the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge, and a policy officer for Victim Support. He was a founding member of the Restorative Justice Council.

Martin’s speech at the event, titled ‘What’s wrong with criminal justice?’ is reproduced below with his permission.


Whoever you may be, it is your friend who lies here.

(Inscription on memorial to John Howard in Kherson, Ukraine, where he died on 20 January 1790)


Too much prison

Year after year the Chief Inspector of Prisons reports that prisoners spend too long locked in their cells during the working day in most prisons. Many spent less than two hours a day out of their cells.

Is it likely that this will motivate people to respect the law and each other? Will it enable them to live a law-abiding life?

What is the point of requiring them to spend time in purposeless inactivity? Especially when we look at the background from which so many prisoners come.

Who are the criminals?

The prison population has been described by no less than the former prime minister, Sir John Major. He reminds us that, of adults committed to prison:

  • nearly two-thirds of them have used Class A drugs;
  • many are illiterate, or innumerate, or both;
  • two-fifths of those in prison were either expelled or excluded from school; three-fifths were frequent truants; many were taken into care as a child; or observed violence in the home.

We allegedly want to persuade mostly young, mostly male people from poor backgrounds to behave better; is this the smartest way to set about it?


If our response when someone causes harm is to inflict more harm, we are failing to follow the old precept primum non nocere, first do no harm.

A new paradigm

This punitive model is built into the Purposes of Sentencing in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (s. 142). The Act’s first stated Purpose is punishment of offenders, but what does punishment actually achieve?

We need to introduce the concept of the paradigm shift, that is, adopting a new normal which contradicts our conventional view, like Galileo’s recognition that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa.

Nearer our own time, Rachel Carson’s transformational book, Silent Spring, has shown us that pesticides such as DDT and glyphosate are not useful tools but agents of destruction.

It is time for our belief in punishment to be similarly overturned by a paradigm shift.

We might say that punishment is to criminal justice what pesticides are to agriculture.


So how about this for a new paradigm: ‘Those who cause harm make amends’.

Without being less ‘tough’, we can drop the word ‘punishment’ and say the lawbreaker should face the ‘consequences’ which deprive the offender of time without separating him from his family and job, if any.

These consequences would combine a practical purpose, making amends for the harm done, and a symbolic one, to represent the seriousness of the harm (or potential harm) caused by the offender.

It is not clear that they necessarily need to be incarcerated for this purpose: day centres, disqualification, and other measures would reflect the seriousness of the offence through the length of the intervention in the offender’s life.

They can include constructive actions such as reparation and rehabilitation, for example by Community Service Orders. This makes demands on the offender instead of merely inflicting punishment. It also provides an opportunity for restorative contact between the victim and the offender.

The Act also mentions deterrence. Sentencing theory introduces a curious back-to-front idea.

You may remember the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, who ’screamed like a steam engine’ before she pricked her finger: In the same way criminal justice threatens punishment before anyone has been hurt.

After the crime, the threat of punishment can put witnesses, including victims, at risk, especially after crimes of violence where the victim may be the only witness.

The more severe the penalty, the stronger the offender’s incentive to silence her. Thus deterrence endangers witnesses and creates the need for witness protection.


The Act attributes powers to sentencing that it does not have. This requires another paradigm shift to a different department of government: prevention of crime, not criminal justice.

Purposes, according to the Act, include the reduction of crime; the reform and rehabilitation of offenders; and the protection of the public. These belong in crime prevention, not criminal justice.

This has been recognised by the government in Wales, which has created a Ministry for Social Justice with a long list of responsibilities relevant to welfare, poverty, a living wage, human rights and many other circumstances that add to the pressures pushing so many people into crime and, in the current system, into prison.

Here, and not in prison, is where crime prevention can begin.

Dr Martin Wright

A tribute from Professor Mike Nellis

This event also heard from Mike Nellis, Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice at the University of Strathclyde. Read his speech below.


It is an honour and a privilege to be standing up here speaking about you, Martin.  You are one of the greatest penal reformers of your generation. It says something about your longevity, your prolific output, your erudition, and your intellectual versatility,  that “penal reformer” may not be the label most lastingly associated with you, but you have most certainly been an important one – not only in your decade as Director of the Howard League 1971-1982 – and recognition of your place in that honourable calling, and what you have added to it, is long overdue.

I first met you – saw and heard you might be better words, because I don’t think I said much myself – when you visited the offices of Radial Alternatives to Prison (RAP) in the late 1970s, maybe 1980 itself (I don’t remember exactly).  I was new to RAP then but this may not, in fact,   have been your first visit. Contra what some younger observers might nowadays think about the impossibility of “reformers” and “abolitionists” speaking civilly and constructively to each other, you had a deep interest in, and surprising familiarity with, what RAP was all about, and in the dialogue you were having with us, you were the openhearted one, and we the guarded ones.

You had in fact already set your thoughts down about RAP’s  place in the scheme of things  in  a book chapter called Tactics of Reform in Sean McConville’s (1975) edited book The Uses of imprisonment: essays on the changing state of English penal policy. I didn’t read this chapter until much later, but I want to use it tonight to unlock what I think is important about what you attempted and achieved as Director of the Howard League, and how it laid the foundations of what you did next.

This chapter is a pithy summary of penal reform methods from John Howard in the eighteenth century upto the era of Hugh Klare, your immediate predecessor as Howard League Director.  It is a record of achievements, but also a diagnosis of what had palpably begun to fail. It concludes with a  thoughtful sketch of the components of a future penal reform movement.

Interestingly, you began this chapter with a quote from Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins from 1974. He’s making the point that the conditions under which penal reform could occur in Britain were no longer what they used to be, and that was your insight too, probably before it was his. This is what he said:

Time and again in our history significant social reforms have depended on a coordinated lead from a small minority, but the balance of necessary impetus may now be changing as traditional assumption about the pattern of authority and society break down. There has to be a substantial and popular interest and support for the aims of an enlightened penal policy and for the methods we use to carry it out (Rt.  Hon Roy Jenkins, in Wright 1975:88)

What he meant was: democratic sensibilities in the 1970s made penal reform a harder task than it had hitherto been. More scrutiny of official decisions was be expected from the public. More deference was required towards public opinion, and renewed emphasis placed  on educating and informing it.

It is it salutary to be reminded how late in the day Jenkins’ was making this point, how even until the 1960s penal reform was still largely a matter of competing middle class elites, in and across the state and civil society, contending to assert a particular moral point of view on what punishment and penal practice should be like, with only minimal reference to public opinion.

Notwithstanding Marjorie Fry’s assiduous support for the appointment of probation officers, it is curious to realise  how  little interested – in 1970! – Hugh Klare was in community alternatives, and how his conception of penal reform extended little further than persuasive dialogues with civil servants about effecting legal, administrative  and technical changes in this or that aspect of imprisonment – small things which sometimes mattered  to the quality of prisoner’s lives but which were nowhere near enough for  you.

You had quite a different sense of what the times demanded of the Howard League and in your sketch of who and  what was needful in a modern penal reform movement you cast the League as a serious, independent think tank broadly engaged with government, professionals and public – being realistic but pushing boundaries – and Nacro as a vital source of government-funded innovation, creating experimental demonstration projects to challenge traditional preconceptions about what care and control needed to look like.

But you also saw space in this movement for both RAP and PROP, the prisoners’s rights group which began in the same era as RAP, and became a partner organisation in most of its campaigns, both getting blacklisted by the Home Office for their pains. Reservations about its occasional stridency apart, you saw PROP as a legitimate “voice of the prisoner” organisation, especially in respect of exposing atrocities and poor conditions in prison.

In the 1950s and 60s the Howard League had not had a good track record of supporting  “user voice”, so for the Director of the Howard League to find value in PROP’s  work was bold and out of the ordinary. It was perhaps a belated renewal of the brief interest the League had shown in this in 1948, when it had commissioned ex-prisoner Mark Benney to survey prisoners who had spent time inside during WW2: you always had an eye on what the Howard League had done before you.

As for  RAP,  you welcomed to the table a group that was frankly “more concerned with ideals  than with ‘the art of the possible’” (p97), but that was all the more important, you thought,  because “when the prison population  and the length of sentences were both rising, this extreme position was effective in bringing reformers back to first principles and making them reflect on the implication of the fact that the treadwheel, and corporal and capital punishment were all once considered as justifiable as prison is today” (p94 emphasis  added).

One has to  infer from that 1975 book chapter  that you were  doing some deep thinking about first principles yourself …….

In 1982, the year your time as Director of the Howard League ended, you published Making Good: prisons, punishment and beyond. It may seem perverse, given all you have written since, to call this your magnum opus, but I want to make a case for it as one of the ten most important British prison books  of the 20th century. The first page of chapter one did RAP’s  work for it, and set the scene for all that followed:

Reformers have in the past set themselves the ideal of improving prisons, but it is time to  ask more fundamental questions both about prisons and the principles on which the penal system as a whole is based (Wright 1982:19)

By the end of this excellent, evidence-informed, highly  readable book no-one could have had any  doubts that the expansion of penal systems and the intensification of punishment was a failed, wrong-headed and calamitous way to respond to most criminal and socially harmful behaviour. The pursuit of social justice, the maintenance of welfare institutions, research-based endeavours and constant public education  were the moral foundations  of your way forward …

….  plus something else, the all-important “beyond” of your book’s subtitle, the means by which the public might yet become more engaged with criminal and civil justice,  and the thing that would come to define the rest of your career – reparation, restitution and an attractively dual approach to “making amends”. (We didn’t really call it “restorative justice” then).

You excavated this neglected idea from within the history of the Howard League itself  – not just Marjorie Fry’s work on compensation –  but more directly from William Tallack, the very first, nineteenth century, Director of the Howard League (or Howard Association as it originally was). In 1900, decades ahead of anyone else, Tallack suggested it might be interesting for reformers to pay attention to the reparative methods the Maori community in New Zealand used to address  harmful behaviour in its midst. Who knew? You did.

Only a relatively small part of Making Good was devoted to “making amends”, enough to intrigue, if not to convince. In a somewhat headteacherly foreword Baroness Barbara Wootton, who clearly did not know what to  make of you or your book, urged you to crack on with exploring this odd idea as fast as you could, before your “cherished  project {was] dismissed as an idealist’s dream” (p13). And so you did.

You were only 40-something at the point Making Good came out. In retrospect (because of all you have done since), it’s easy to say you were only getting started, but what I have wanted to convey was how much you had accomplished, and how much there already was to celebrate,  even by then. You left the Howard League a much less insular organisation than when you found it – or it found you. From inside the  system – in part by listening to people outside the system – you changed the terms of the argument about what mainstream penal reformers should be saying and doing, however hard it is, however long it takes. And since you wrote Making Good, and concluded with this line …..

In the search for a society in which people harm each other as little as possible, and as much as possible of the harm is repaired, the radical question is whether a system that is primarily penal is the most effective and just that we can devise (p270).

….  no progressive person in this field, not even the abolitionists, have ever changed those terms back.

Professor Mike Nellis



Wright M (1975) Tactics of Reform, in McConville S (ed)  The Uses of Imprisonment: essays in the changing state of English penal policy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Wright M (1982)  Making Good: prisons, punishment and beyond. London: Burnett Books.


  • alferd smifey says:

    Hurst my jokes that I often say to my notes I spent 7 1/2 months in Pentonville prison long pose what was I in for Plumbing no kicked me out at 4:30 PM every day the Sales well damp badly lit and thoroughly depressive If long sentences in prison worked I will be all for it but it doesn’t it’s expensive And there are better ways of punishing people curfews making them pay fines Community service I think we should adult the Scandinavian system it works reoffending is far less than it is in this country

  • alferd smifey says:

    First of my joke I spent 7 1/2 months in Pentonville prison long poles but was I aim for answer plumbing We have at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon but seriously the are damp low lighting and thoroughly depression if I thought imprisonment worked I wouldn’t be writing this letter but it doesn’t it’s expensive and it doesn’t stop reoffending, yet there are lots of ways of punishing people without incarcerating them I suggest we follow the Scandinavian Model it works they are Reopending is much lower than ours

  • Jonathan Ranger says:

    There’s an old African saying: It takes a village to bring up a child.
    Today, in the West, we tend to live in isolation, not community. Parents may be unprepared to bring up their children ’properly’ – maybe because of their own upbringing. Many parents don’t really want the children they think they ought to have – pressure from hopeful grandparents, pressure from society that expects couples to have children because, if they don’t, there must be something wrong with them. Too many children are effectively abandoned. The churches have abdicated their responsibilities.
    Almost every prisoner/offender could trace cause-and-effect back to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) of one sort or another, yet there is little real help for them inside prison. Martin’s (and others’) emphasis on Restorative Justice mainly within the community must become the preferred route, and ‘rehabilitation’ must be taken seriously.

  • Alice Audsley says:

    Thank you indeed. To say that punishment is to criminal justice what pesticides are to agriculture is an illuminating thought.
    The article in the current Howard League Journal, by David Eagleson on restorative practices in Northern Ireland prisons gives me grounds for hope and confirms so much of what you say.
    I think the value of things like Community Service Orders is that they put responsibility on the community as well as the offender which is surely where the joint responsibility lies?

  • Julia Kemp says:

    Martin thank you, you are so right in every respect, which should be evident to any half literate individual.
    why do we insist on continuing down the downward spiral of incarceration and punishment. how can we be so short sighted .

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