02/01/2011 22:51 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Crime And Punishment: Is It Time For A More Humane Prison System?

If you believe what you read in the tabloid newspapers, Kenneth Clarke is among the least popular men in Britain this week.

The justice secretary recently outlined plans for a radical reform of the criminal justice system which, if approved, would mark the end of an 18-year-long "prison works" approach that has sent our prison population soaring.

The proposals outlined in his green paper on sentencing and rehabilitation, Breaking the Cycle, published last Tuesday, include giving judges greater discretion in sentencing and providing alternatives to prison for the mentally ill.

Summing up his philosophy, Clarke told MPs: "...prison cannot continue to be simply an expensive way of giving communities a break."

The recommendations were seized on by the tabloids, with The Sun accusing Clarke of wanting to "let murderers out early" and the Daily Mail of going "soft on crime".

This is par for the course. For whatever reason, any attempt to examine afresh how we deal with criminals in this country seems to descend into childish name-calling – despite the fact that around two in three prisoners go on to re-offend.

For me, the more interesting aspect of the proposed reforms is the recommendation of "increasing reparation to victims through greater use of restorative justice...and other reforms to make offenders directly compensate victims of crime."

Some years back I interviewed a woman who had met her husband's murderer through a restorative justice scheme.

The woman, who we'll call Sandra, spent two years persuading agencies to allow her to meet him. When she finally did, it was life-changing. She talked about being able to tell this man what he had done, what he had destroyed, and the relief in her voice was palpable.

Like many victims of serious crime, Sandra described feeling dehumanised by the legal system. As things stand, a crime is considered to have taken place against the state rather than an individual and lawyers speak for the offender and the injured party.

By contrast, restorative justice encourages communication between the victim and the offender themselves in an attempt to address the harm caused by a criminal act. This may be indirect, such as through letters, or direct, such as the kind of face-to-face meeting in the presence of a mediator that Sandra requested.

Research backs up its effectiveness. A report by the Smith Institute think-tank, for example, found that restorative interventions substantially reduce repeat offending – and do so more successfully than prison.

Those who work in the field talk about the capacity for restorative approaches to tackle the emotional pain on both sides, a level of complexity that rarely gets aired in an adversarial legal system – and to confront the offender with the real personal consequences of their actions.

Spooked by the tabloid headlines, the prime minister David Cameron acted swiftly this week to disown many of Clarke's proposals. There is even talk of Clarke being putt out to less controversial pastures.

Whatever Clarke's motives, "compassionate Conservatism" or cost-cutting, it would be short-sighted to dismiss his proposals out of hand. They offer a genuine opportunity to make the system work better for everybody – victims, offenders and society as a whole.

Sandra, for one, is adamant that restorative approaches can work. "That person had my husband's life in his hands and he chose to end it," she told me. "All the solicitors and lawyers can speak for him and play bat and ball and argue, but he's the only one who can give a reason for it."

Laura Smith is a freelance journalist, writer and editor who has written for publications including The Guardian, The Independent, Marie Claire and the Evening Standard.