Ideas matter

Richard Garside
Monday, 13 December 2010

I am going to make three points. First, I want to welcome what I take to be the core argument that Greg and Aubrey make in their very interesting book: that we must dare to fail; that we learn at least as much, if not more, from failure as we do from success.

Under the last Labour government criminal justice practice became profoundly bureaucratised and risk averse. The so-called ‘what works’ agenda, which should have encouraged experimentation and innovation, all too often delivered the opposite. Promising initiatives failed to get financial support. They could not prove ‘success’ against what were often very narrowly defined measures of success. Others were strangled at birth. As Aubrey and Greg point out, if we are not prepared to stick our necks out, to do things differently, we condemn ourselves to repeating the mistakes of the past.

In their concluding pages Greg and Aubrey write:

'we hope to encourage future risk-taking by nudging the field of criminal justice away from a culture of finger-pointing that scorns those who deviate from orthodoxy when they fall short of their ambitions.'

I can but agree.

Second, I want to emphasise that history matters. If we want to think clearly about how to solve the challenges of the present we need to understand where we have come from; what we have inherited from the past. Under the last Labour government, for instance, criminal justice budgets and the criminal justice system grew, and grew, and grew. To give but the most striking figure: spending on the police in England and Wales grew by 50 percent in real terms between 1999 and 2009. Spending on the prison and the probation services and on the courts likewise grew, if less dramatically. This splurge of money bought a much larger, more expansive system that tirelessly found new ‘problems’ to solve. This is the legacy we are now dealing with and it partly explains why criminal justice seems so often to be crowding out mainstream provision for those vulnerable to criminal justice capture.

The third point I want to make is that ideas matter. I mention this in part because Aubrey appeared to be arguing that ideas are less important than implementation. I could not disagree more. Ideas change the world. Without ideas real change and progress is not possible. Of course ideas are not enough. Action and implementation are necessary. But if there is one thing worse than a good idea badly implemented, it is a bad idea implemented well. There have been plenty of examples over recent years.

As an example of a bad idea, what about the proposition that effective community sentences will help to halt, and ultimately reduce, the prison population? There is a fair bit of research over the years, including research by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, that suggests this belief is at best dubious. Indeed, far from arresting or reversing prison growth, there is reason to believe that effective community sentences lead to net widening and, ultimately, to increasing the prison population.

Bad idea two is that it is possible to improve the workings of the criminal justice system to reform those caught up in its coils and, ultimately, reduce the numbers processed by it. This, at least, appears to be one of the core ideas of the current coalition government. Yet the evidence also points to the opposite conclusion: that investment in greater criminal justice effectiveness draws more, not fewer, people into the system. There is much to be done developing alternative, non-criminal justice responses to individuals all too often sucked into the criminal justice system.

A third bad idea is that the growth in the prison population is driven by punitive public attitudes, or populist politicians, or the tabloid media, or, indeed, the levels of crime (notwithstanding the mystification involved in the ‘crime’ category). One wouldn’t want to argue that these, and other surface factors, have absolutely no impact. But the fundamental drivers are social and economic. Practice and campaigning that sees the challenge as being to educate politicians, challenge public views or improve media reporting are largely chasing the wrong hare.

So yes, questions of practice and implementation are important. But let’s make sure we are implementing the right ideas in the first place.