Can the Criminal Justice Sector learn from Apple and Google?

Originally published in European Social Innovation Research

Anton Shelupanov


The world of social innovation has been good at learning from other sectors. Concepts such as venture capital, Innovation Time Off, and angel investors, primarily developed in the technology sector, are now all familiar to social entrepreneurs. This is with good reason. Many successful technological innovations gone on to become household names – from Dropbox to Gmail – because these techniques have given innovators the space and support they need to create, develop prototype and establish new ideas.


The growing popularity of these techniques in the social innovation world is a recognition by entrepreneurs that early stage support and advice can be the key to success. For example, there are now numerous Accelerators around the world which typify this approach – Impact8 in Canada run by MaRS Discovery District, and Social Impact Start in Germany.


Health, education and long term care are all turning towards social innovation and the tools which come with it. However, the sector I work in, criminal justice, has been slower than most of these other social sectors in embracing these techniques. In part, this may be to do with its quasi-military history and traditionally hierarchical structures. And, in part, by its very nature, the sector is risk averse, understandably so given that one of its main goals is to reduce and manage the risk to society and individuals posed by those who commit crime. Moreover, policy, structural re-arrangement and organisational re-design stemming from Whitehall often dominates the debate about change in the criminal justice system, rather than allowing innovation to bubble up from the bottom. For example, the recent sweeping structural changes to probation being imposed from Government have resulted in a sort of practice paralysis among many of its workers because they don’t know what’s coming next.


But, crucially, the reason the sector is often seen as lacking dynamism and creativity is not because there aren’t radical and innovative individuals in the sector who want to change things. In my latest book, ‘StreetCraft’, we profiled dozens of creative criminal justice workers who have set up innovative new projects. But what they described was innovation despite the constraints of the sector they work in, rather than because they were afforded the space to be creative. Most particularly, what was clear was that there had been little or no early stage support for them when they had first set off on the road of innovative practice change. The outliers manage it by hook or by crook, but many great ideas never make it past the initial concept phase due to lack of support.


In response to that, we set up the StreetCraft Scholarship – a support programme for early stage criminal justice innovators. Under the Scholarship, we are testing whether two particular techniques – Accelerators and Innovation Time Off—can help innovators in the criminal justice field put new ideas into practice.


Our inaugural group of four StreetCraft Scholars are the self-nominated guinea pigs. Our Scholars are developing four very powerful ideas, all at an early stage of development. Constable Alex Crisp is seeking to expand the Mental Health Crisis Intervention Training he has developed to an entire county’s police force, hopefully establishing it as a national centre of excellence for how the police deal with mental health-related emergencies. Leroy Johnson is developing ways to use his established music business to engage justice-involved young people and equip them with the skills and emotional resilience they need for today’s challenging labour market. Lisa Rowles is exploring how to create a new regime for prisons rooted primarily in restorative justice principles, a potentially radical reshaping of the ethos behind imprisonment. Roger Blackman is using a unique problem-solving mentoring model  to help young offenders maximise their skills and resources in their journey away from crime, and helping the sector move beyond mentoring simply as well intentioned support for offenders.


Whilst these innovations are already at prototype stage, and so are rooted in some developmental background – including professional hunches, research and years of personal experience—, the Scholarship is providing them with dedicated social innovation support. First, we are putting our Scholars through a two day intensive induction in the world of social innovation. Then Leroy and Roger will be supported through the Young Foundation Accelerator, to help them enhance their ability to attract investment. Lisa and Alex are using Innovation Time Off to develop their projects, with support from technical assistance experts at the criminal justice infrastructure charity, Clinks. The use of these two techniques is, as far as we know, a first for the UK criminal justice sector.


As they go through the Scholarship, we are recording the lessons they are learning both for their own projects about how we can better apply the techniques for future innovators in the sector. Studying how the Scholars’ ideas develop and how the support does and does not help, is a useful test bed for learning how the techniques we are using play out in the sector. Our bet is that the innovation tools which have been commonplace in other sectors not only should apply in the criminal justice world too, but that, with the right tweaks and adjustments that they are here to stay.


We are excited by the projects our four Scholars are developing, and we hope that the support we are facilitating is of the right kind. One of our Scholars may be on the brink of developing the social innovation equivalent of something as disruptive and radical as Google Glass, or as universally accepted as Dropbox. Yet we also know that trial and error go hand in hand and that innovation, by definition, can lead to unknowable and unstable outcomes. The path ahead is unclear but it always has been and always will be. The StreetCraft Scholarship is an unpredictable experiment, but we firmly believe it is a necessary one for our sector.