Both visionaries and pragmatists are necessary

Ann Horton
Friday, 25 March 2022

Richard Garside’s recent piece on the problems the voluntary sector encounters in achieving real change raised some interesting questions.

There is always a problem in finding a balance between the different types of activity or approaches which voluntary groups take when they want to bring about change. 

Looking at the justice system as a whole, one option is not to tackle too many issues at once. This has been an approach taken by the Howard League for Penal Reform in the past. They have focussed on a small number of issues, setting targets for the year, and concentrate on ways of achieving their objectives in those issues - while still commenting on other issues if necessary.

The current Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, also seems to be favouring this approach for prison inspection reports, questioning whether perhaps highlighting a smaller number of issues to deal with, rather than writing a long list of everything that needs improving, might produce more effective reform.

Focus groups which concentrate on one main aspect for reform - such as JENGbA and UNGRIPP – have a different problem: how to achieve that one main goal?

Historically it can be seen that often big reforms with a single goal – such as the abolition of the slave trade – took years to achieve. I think therefore that those of us who are active in such groups need to be prepared for running a marathon, rather than doing a quick sprint to the finish line! 

However, unlike in a marathon, where you have to follow a set route, we should not be content to follow that long route, but should constantly seek to find better and shorter ways of getting to our goal. Sometimes we may need to be content for the time being in making what seems to be only a small step towards our goal, rather than achieving the whole thing at once.

To use a different analogy: you may not be able to knock a whole wall down at once, but you can keep on taking bricks out of it until it finally falls! It may not be enough progress for us, but it is a step in the right direction.

Thus, whether the aim is the reform of the whole justice system, or just one particular part of it, both visionaries and pragmatists are necessary. We need to come up with well-researched and believable alternatives and pathways to the justice system we have at present, or to the particular aspect of it we are fighting to reform, even if at the moment those in power are not interested in listening.

It is vital that people can see that our vision makes practical sense as well and is achievable. Winning hearts and minds is important. 

Having the wisdom to recognise the right time and methods to bring about these reforms is the hard part! But also, surely, our actions should not be motivated by the desire to “feel good” about ourselves, but because we believe that fighting injustice is the right thing to do.

Ann Horton is a member of the UNGRIPP focus group (UNited Group for the Reform of the IPP).