Dos and don'ts in criminal justice

David Faulkner
Monday, 15 February 2016

Debates about criminal justice and penal reform usually focus, rightly, on policies, structures and the issues of the moment – the prison population, sentencing, rehabilitation, drugs, terrorism, and so on.

All those are important and most of them are urgent. But other things matter as well.

The integrity, fairness and humanity of the process, and how people think and feel they have been treated, can be just as important as any measurable outcome.

Those depend on the day-to-day behaviour of the various actors, their sensibilities and expectations, the interactions and relationships between them, and their actual experience of the system’s day-to-day operations.

At a time when tensions between democracy, public accountability, judicial independence, commercial enterprise and financial stringency are becoming more complex and sometimes more acute, it is more than ever important that justice should be administered in a way that people can see and experience as fair and responsive.

Ministers, administrators, managers and practitioners might usefully follow these rules.

  1. Treat everyone with respect for their humanity and identity. Do not humiliate or antagonise anyone unnecessarily.
  2. Acknowledge evidence and respect expertise. Promote measures to extend their range and depth and improve their quality. Don’t dismiss them or appeal instead to ‘common sense’ or ‘what the public wants’.
  3. Work for a culture of continuous, self-motivated improvement. Avoid constant change for its own sake. Encourage people to have a sense of ownership, to do things because they believe in them and not just because they have been told to do them.
  4. Give credit where it’s due. Thank people and congratulate them when you can.
  5. Keep a sense of proportion. When things go wrong, don’t over-react or raise false expectations. If you’re a minister, don’t think you always have to intervene or claim you have a solution.
  6. Respect and listen to those who care about what you’re doing, even if you may not agree with them. Be ready to stop, look and listen, and not just to the loudest or most insistent voices.
  7. Encourage, provide and take advantage of opportunities for people with different backgrounds and experience to meet and exchange ideas.
  8. Be serious about encouraging local initiatives and promoting local accountability and responsibility. Delegate and devolve, including to local authorities where possible.
  9. Don’t legislate unless you have to. Don’t use the criminal law to ‘send a message’ or for operational convenience, or to show that the government is ‘doing something’. Don’t allow legislation passed for one purpose to be used for another.
  10. Make sure that the need for legislation and its content are fully and openly discussed before it is introduced, and then that it thoroughly scrutinised by Parliament.
  11. Use simple language which respects the audience and avoids jargon, clichés and slogans. Do not stereotype or stigmatise offenders (or immigrants or people living in poverty). Avoid the language of warfare.
  12. Try to find something good, even in the most unpromising situations.

Criminal justice needs to be supported by a continuous, transparent and inclusive process of listening and responding to which not only ministers, administrators, managers and practitioners but also scholars, journalists and the wider public should all contribute.

David Faulkner is a former Home Office Civil Servant and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Oxford.