From research to policy

John Croft
Thursday, 12 November 2015

It can take a long time for research to be enshrined in policy, and eventually practice.

Several decades elapsed before the association of smoking and lung cancer led to the discouragement of smoking in public places. However, under the pressure of conflict, scientific research can speedily become practical policy: tanks in World War I, the atom bomb and computing in World War II for instance.

In criminal justice, individual pieces of research have rarely led to a direct change of policy but have influenced the climate of opinion among policy makers as well as practice – in the 1970s notably on the effectiveness of sentencing and situational crime prevention.

But as Paul Rock has pointed out, the golden age of public criminology did not last and, along with accusations of liberal elitism, by the last decade of the century there was a loss of confidence by politicians and the media in both official and academic sources.

When I became head of the Home Office Research Unit in 1972, I inherited a capability of some 50 research workers and about 10 support staff somewhat isolated – there were teams in Manchester and Edinburgh – from the administrative functions of the Department.

By the time I retired in 1983, I had succeeded in integrating the social research effort by getting the Unit housed in the main Home Office building in Queen Anne’s Gate, together with outposting a few individual research officers to key administrative divisions such as the Crime Policy Planning Unit within the Criminal Department as well as the Police and Prison Departments.

The output of the Research Unit was published, without disclaimer, in an official Home Office series.

In addition to reviews of the effectiveness of sentencing and situational crime prevention, some of the more significant included the launch of the British Crime Survey as well as studies of screen violence and film censorship, fines and the magistracy, and the contribution to the findings of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure.

At that time, however, there was political resistance to any official enquiry into bias against ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system. In contrast elements of research carried out by the Unit or sponsored in universities can be traced to the framing of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and the Halliday report of 2001 on sentencing.

How can the gap between research and policy be bridged? One must of course take into account that political (the parliamentary programme) and research (need for verification) timetables do not necessarily dovetail, while another problem lies in communication, for example the technical language in which research findings are expressed.

Over the last four decades there has been a considerable increase, nationally as well as internationally, of published research in criminology from universities.

A clearing house in the form of an independent Institute of Justice would be the ideal but probably unaffordable. Alternatively what about a small interpretive unit within government, or for an independent organisation, to take on this task?