Despite appearing to be quite different, two stories in today’s media raise important and connected questions.

First, the (reported) imminent release ‘on compassionate grounds’ of the jailed Lockerbie bomber who is now dying of prostate cancer. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is serving life for murdering 270 people when Pan Am flight 103 exploded in 1988. I remember it well because I was watching telly while babysitting my young children in Kendal when the screen went blank and appeals to emergency services started to come across the screen. The plane had flown over Kendal just a few minutes before it exploded. yet, despite the conviction and the loss of his subsequent appeals, there are widely acknowledged doubts about the justice of his conviction – most articulately from Jim Swire, father of one of the victims and for many years leader of the group campaigning for justice for the victims and their families.

The BBC’s Daniel Sandford in Washington said “broadly” families in the UK were concerned about the conviction, whereas US relatives were convinced of his guilt.

The second related story is the report issued today by Barnardo’s in which it maintains that too many British young people are being locked up (rather than given community sentences) and that the sentencing of many of these young people (some as young as 12) does nothing other than increase the potential for further criminalisation. The BBC report says:

The law specifically states that children aged 14 and under should not be locked up unless they have committed a grave offence or have committed a serious offence and are deemed to be a persistent offender. But the Barnardo’s report found more than a third of 12 to 14-year-olds locked up did not meet the conditions. Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey: “I’ve been shocked at the number of very young children we lock up.”

Barnardo’s surveyed around half of all children who were put in young offender institutions in 2007. More than a fifth were locked up for breaching an Anti-social Behaviour Order or similar punishment, half were victims of abuse and more than a third were living with an adult criminal.

Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey said that until 1998 it would have been illegal to imprison these young people unless they had committed one of the so-called “grave offences”. “Now we do this, every year, to more than 400 children aged 12, 13 and 14. “This is a tragedy for the young people themselves, it’s a shocking waste of money and, in terms of reducing their offending and doing anything to protect victims, it is almost invariably ineffective.”

And there’s the rub – precisely where these two stories collide. What is the purpose of custodial sentences? If the penal system exists simply to punish offenders and make everybody else feel safer, then it is clearly not very effective. It might reassure those who see punishment as ‘justice done and seen to be done’. But the offenders will come out and, if criminalised by their experience, be a further or worse problem than they were before. ‘deterrence’ does not seem to work – especially when young people return to the communities and dysfunctional families/friendships that allowed or encouraged them to get into trouble in the first place.

In other words, justice is not served simply by inflicting deserved punishment; there must be some serious work at both rehabilitation and restitution if offenders are to change their ways and, therefore, come out of their criminal sentence better able to live without offending. That way society benefits and it is less expensive. The problem is that pouring resources into stuff that is hard to measure (slow/gradual attitude or behavioural change) is not attractive to the great avenging public.

So, what place does or should compassion have in a penal system? To what extent is justice served by keeping the Lockerbie bomber in prison while he dies – especially given the doubts about his conviction and the lack of prosecution of anybody else? Is justice served – or just vengeance? And isn’t the mark of a democratic, civilised society that it can go beyond justice to show compassion – rather than mimic the societies that thirst for blood-vengeance at the slightest provocation?

I guess I want to explore the value of a pragmatic approach to compassion that will not be welcomed by the Daily Mail brigade. Keeping people locked up might make some of us feel better, but it might be ineffective, expensive and self-defeating. Yes, of course, some people need to be locked up for a very long time, if not for the whole of their life. I have done prison chaplaincy and worked with offenders and am not naive. But, there must be room for an intelligent debate in this country about what we think ‘justice’ is, how it is to be achieved and how it should be mediated effectively.

I might want to see young offenders locked up and kept out of the way and suffering for their crimes. But if we do nothing to help them to change, then we are burying our heads in the sand of self-righteousness and simply sowing the seeds of further crime in the future. This is a problem for the whole of our society – not just for the criminal justice system. I can’t complain if a young offender comes out hardened and commits further crimes against me or my community if I have done nothing to understand them and help provide an alternative way of life in their future.

And I bet this will be called ‘wet liberalism’.