Originally published in The Huffington Post UK
Another year, another piece of crime and justice legislation. At least we can’t blame the Coalition Government and the former Labour administration for a lack of continuity. Over the past three years, we have had nine pieces of criminal justice legislation and the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill before Parliament is just one of four crime Bills currently under debate.
Alongside changing the law, this Government has continued the obsessions of its predecessors around structure. Chris Grayling, the current Justice Secretary, has been very bullish whilst not making many friends when it comes to system redesign. His current proposals include splitting probation in two and setting up new privatised consortia to run community supervision of offenders, all measured and monitored on a payment by results basis.
In all this obsession with tinkering with the law and changing the structures of the criminal justice system, not much attention has been paid to what good practice actually looks like. The churn of green papers, consultations and consultation events, invitations to bid and so on has understandably led to many of the organisations providing criminal justice services – police forces, probation trusts and some of the big charities – spending the last couple of years focusing on these meta changes to their environment. However, that may have come at the expense of nurturing practice-led innovation at the level of an individual member of staff interacting with an individual offender to improve public safety.
Over the last year or so, my colleagues and I interviewed many criminal justice pioneers including charity workers, probation staff, police officers, former offenders, sentencers and others – all working on the frontline in an effort to make society safer. We were struck by the wealth of practitioner-led criminal justice innovation out there – and the entrepreneurial spirit of these innovators. Regardless of the latest government paper, and driven by their sense of social mission, these women and men have worked hard, at times against the odds and without much organisational support, to do something differently. They have continued to work with victims, offenders and communities in a way which sometimes goes against established bureaucracies and conventional wisdom. This is because many of them see that when something isn’t working very well, doing more of the same thing isn’t the answer, even if the system disagrees. The result of these conversations was the book StreetCraft published on 19 February. It contains many inspiring stories – of a young cop trying to set up a new way to mediate between teens in trouble, a probation practitioner working to change the way probation officers manage offenders guilty of hate crimes, a former prisoner in Scotland setting up a new charity from scratch.
Take the example of Neighbourhood Justice Panels. A couple of practitioners from Wiltshire are seeking to make police cautions meaningful by helping mediate between victims and offenders and help them draw up a contract to right the harm done in future, rather than there being no follow up to the crime except for a note in a police file. Another practitioner in Tottenham, North London, turned a council initiative to help resettle people returning from prison and stop them reoffending into an independent charity, when cuts forced the council to make the decision to abandon it. That man’s belief in the value of the work and his drive and personality meant the community was not deprived of this vital service when the funding dried up.
The people we spoke to are outliers, who have shone and innovated having overcome numerous barriers. This is why the Centre for Justice Innovation is launching a new support programme for some of these budding criminal justice pioneers, to help them negotiate their way past initial hurdles where so many innovations have the risk of falling. With the assistance of two highly experienced partners – the Young Foundation and Clinks – we hope to equip some of these individuals with the tools they need to make their journey from a great idea to a fully developed new way of doing things easier, faster and less prone to pitfalls and teething problems.
Conventional wisdom states that the criminal justice sector is low on innovation. Our research in the form of the book StreetCraft plainly demonstrates that this is not the case. There is a wealth of practice-led innovation in the sector, and a huge capacity for more. But it’s about supporting people, rather than tinkering with systems, which is going to help those innovators fulfil their potential – and continue to drive down crime rates in order to make society safer for all of us.