Our Director, Phil Bowen, reflects on the Centre's multi-jurisdictional conference on problem-solving justice.
Over the last few months, different political parties have decided to wrestle with each other on the well-worn, muddy turf of who is the toughest on sentencing. It could seem, for those of us who seek to champion justice reform that is rooted in the research of what works, that we are at risk, yet again, of subordinating science for slogans, of choosing rhetoric over research.
Yet in spite of the vicissitudes of our national politics, the evidence remains the evidence: solid, stubborn and unavoidablhe. This week, that evidence infused our national conference on problem-solving courts, and was made live and vital by the collection of practitioners, researchers, commissioners and funders who came together to share what is working to make our justice systems fairer and more effective. We had presentations from practitioners from projects in Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, and Birmingham to name but a few. We heard from judges, magistrates, youth justice workers, probation officers and social workers, working in private family law, public family law, youth and adult courts from across the United Kingdom. We heard from people who have been fighting the good fight for decades, and people who are going to be applying the lessons learnt along the way in new problem-solving pilots springing up across the UK.
Across the country, in all the nations of the United Kingdom, we heard the same messages: that many of the people caught in our justice system are capable of change; that combining accountability and help is the smart, evidence-based response; that punishment alone, without rehabilitation and hope, is a dead end. The conference got to see and feel the true impact of their work hearing from a mum who had successfully engaged with her Family Drug and Alcohol Court, and got to witness how youth court can feel to our children and young people through an amazing installation by our partners, Reality Art.
Claire Coutinho MP, Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing at the Department for Education, expressed her strong support for our 14 Family Drug and Alcohol Courts, perhaps the most wide-spread and the most well evidenced set of problem-solving courts in the UK today. Lord Thomas, former Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales, and the current Lady Chief Justice for Northern Ireland, Dame Siobhan Keegan, underlined senior judicial support for the spread of problem-solving across the country.
But, as highlighted by Karyn McCluskey, Chief Executive of Community Justice Scotland, in her closing address, many of us are “impatient for change,” especially when so much of the practice discussed at the conference is strongly rooted in what we know works. We at the Centre can try and shift the dial slowly, by supporting practice to spread on the ground and by building communities of practice, to amplify the voice and the power all those doing such great work. And we will always seek to press for much bigger changes, to influence senior leaders, commissioners and national political leaders to roll out a number of these models of practice so everyone has access to the opportunities that problem-solving courts bring. So, at a time when some people could feel dispirited, it is important to remind ourselves that even when the politics can seem stuck, there is no shortage of people doing the right thing, and working for a fairer and more effective justice system in the future.