Policy Exchange’s Blair Gibbs talks to Owen McQuade about the 10 successful case studies of local innovation in justice, identified by the think tank in Britain and the USA. Community level success often goes unnoticed but can make a real difference to society.
“Don’t be afraid if you fail” is one of Blair Gibbs’ most telling pieces of advice, after reviewing 10 examples of innovation in criminal justice. As Research Director for Crime and Justice at London-based think tank Policy Exchange, Gibbs has edited ‘From the ground up’, an assessment of five promising projects in Britain and five in the USA.
Report authors Aubrey Fox and Gavin Lockhart concluded that policy-makers often do not realise how much innovation is happening at a local level. In England and Wales at least, the focus has been on making major national changes which are “enormously complicated, time-consuming and fraught with … unintended consequences.”
Instead, they point out that localised pilot projects can be quietly and patiently built up over time, learning by trial and error. By their nature, these projects vary considerably in scale, focus and leadership. Success is not guaranteed but where innovation works, the lessons can often be applied at a wide scale.
Take for example, the anti-gang Operation CeaseFire strategy in Boston and Chicago, adopted in Glasgow and subsequently considered in England after last summer’s riots.
Projects were analysed at three stages: planning, implementation and sustainment.
Planning is “often the most neglected” but “arguably most important” stage. Risks include ignoring how to gain local support and how to tailor the project to local needs, poor research and failing to inform outside experts or potential objectors.
Save Our Streets (SOS) in Brooklyn followed on from Chicago’s CeaseFire model but New York gangs tended to be smaller and the method had to match that local context. The Neighbourhood Opportunity Network (NeON), also in New York, focused on identifying five clusters of ex-offenders on probation and has set aside funds for voluntary organisations who want to come on board.
Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit spent four months analysing data on binge drinking and violent crime, and also interviewing judges, police officers, A&E doctors and academics, to get a fuller picture. It found that two-thirds of arrested suspects were under the influence of alcohol and drink-related violence was increasingly taking place at home.
In the unit’s Project Pegasus, offenders are fitted with a bracelet that detects any alcohol intake. The project also consulted human rights lawyers (as drinkers could protest that they are not breaking the law), but found that they agreed with the project’s concept.
Good implementation depended on “unwavering attention” to detail and a willingness to go through a process of trial and error to improve a project. Implementation was hindered when practitioners encountered unforeseen problems and by “intense pressure” to get results. It was unrealistic to expect change where a project was only funded for two or three years.
The Intensive Alternatives to Custody (IAC) programme in Manchester focused on cases where magistrates gave offenders short prison sentences, even though they did not think these would deter crime. The sample was limited to 18-25 year old men, an age bracket with a high risk of re-offending. IAC orders tend to last at least 12 months and demand more work from ex-offenders compared to other forms of probation.
Bristol’s Impact programme brings police, probation and voluntary organisation representatives together to work out how to deal with offenders who were referred from agencies. The multi-agency team looks at all available intelligence in each case, and deselects individuals who are doing best (by finishing the programme) or worst i.e. being sentenced to a long-term jail sentence. Warning letters are sent by probation staff and followed up with an immediate visit by a police officer.
Successful projects also tend to give front-line staff “considerable discretion”. At the Heron Unit, in west London, prison officers are tasked to help individual young offenders to prepare for life after their sentence in a young offenders institution. One officer has encouraged an increase in the use of day release e.g. to clean up graffiti or attend a job interview. Another has worked on bringing role models from business and Arsenal Football Club into the institution.
Accountability is key. In the Harlem Parole Re-entry Court, participants regularly appeared before a judge who checked their compliance with parole conditions. All projects discussed in the paper were prepared to admit their mistakes and change course where necessary.
Sustainment involves keeping the work going and also sharing best practice throughout the criminal justice system.
Multi-agency risk assessment conferences, for example, bring all the relevant agencies involved in a domestic violence case together, to work out a safety plan for the highest risk victims. The conferences were pioneered by a Bristol-based charity, Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (CAADA), and now help to protect around 45,000 victims across England and Wales.
Funding shortages are an obvious problem for pilot projects. However, attracting high profile “champions” can help to sustain them.
Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) was launched in 2004 by judge Steve Alm, who has regularly promoted it across the US justice system and encouraged academics to critique its performance. He found that he was regularly sentencing offenders who had broken their probation conditions up to 30 times. The HOPE scheme regularly tests probationers for drug use (initially at least six times per month) and imposes a short, immediate jail sentence as a deterrent. Drug treatment programmes are also provided for regular drug users.
Political impartiality also helps. The Pew Centre, a major American think tank on justice, is strictly non-partisan and works closely with Republicans and Democrats alike. “Even the best and most effective demonstration projects cannot succeed without political support,” the report states. Pew helped to draft Kentucky’s 2011 Public Safety and Offender Accountability Bill, which is redirecting prison funding to probation, parole and substance abuse treatment.
“We just highlighted a very few examples of a lot of innovation that is happening, and it’s just not seen often enough,” Gibbs tells eolas. “Let’s encourage innovation but let’s not be too optimistic,” he added, emphasising that “change takes time” and reducing re-offending is hard work.
Projects should avoid being too ambitious but aim to achieve some secure funding. Research is “really important” as “at the end of the day, you have to demonstrate some impact.” Political support cannot be taken for granted as a project could be dropped when a supportive politician loses office.
“So you need to have a really good evidence base and you need to find ways of promoting what you’re doing,” he says, “but at the same time, don’t be afraid if you fail because that’s how we learn and we need more innovation, more learning and more experimentation in justice.”
The full report is available at www.policyexchange.org.uk/crime-and-justice