Why our new Justice and Security project is needed

The Project for Modern Democracy is launching a new research project this year on justice and security. In keeping with the work that we already do, this new research will focus on defining the most important modern policy challenges and the new thinking that is needed to meet them. 

A new research programme

Why are we expanding our work into this new domain?

First, there is growing concern that the justice system in the UK is degrading, and that major agencies within it are dysfunctional, or simply failing to deliver for the public. Even before the recent Worboys parole case, many parts of the system had come under renewed scrutiny, whether it was stubbornly high reoffending, or a major escalation of prison violence. Add to this the recent and unprecedented review of rape cases in response to chronic failings around disclosure in the trial process, and the perception of a system in crisis seems justified.

Second, crime is coming back as a dominant political issue – as the threats are evolving, old crime problems are returning, and public concern is returning. According to Ipsos MORI, crime has been dropping down the list of voter priorities consistently for ten years – from 37 per cent of people naming it as the top issue facing the country in December 2007, to just 12 per cent in December 2017. This has reflected a genuine reduction in volume crime, and less victimisation. But this trend may have bottomed-out, as police recorded crime is steadily rising again. The poor state of prison regimes is just one area where a lot of public attention has resurfaced. The multiple Islamist attacks in 2017 refocused public and political concern about the new terrorism. Given the breadth of the problem and the millions of people directly affected, the escalating threat of cyber crime and online fraud are also becoming mainstream concerns.

Third, and in response to this picture, some longstanding institutional problems are beginning to ossify – like poor prison regimes, the quality of the court process, the police’s ability to tackle online offending, and the treatment of victims – and so naturally the political heat is returning. And with it, will be a demand for new policies that can actually be adopted, and not just an unwinding of changes already made. There is a need for innovative policy thinking, and much greater experimentation than is currently happening, and this means an emphasis on more reform, not less.

And, last, the perspective we intend to bring – drawing on new innovations around the world and the best international policy experience – is sorely needed in the UK in order to design and implement the best approaches, especially at this moment of geopolitical detachment.

The justice system today: new pressures, old problems

The word crisis is overused but there are signs – in official statistics, or in rare judicial outbursts, or from practitioner groups and watchdogs – that the criminal justice system is under severe pressure. 

Some of these problems are not new. The system has struggled with delays for many decades. Violence has regrettably always been a feature of prison life. The police have always had to play catch-up in response to new technology-enabled offending. Probation was never adequately funded to meet public expectations.

But new pressures are growing, and old arrangements seem to be falling short. Sexual offence cases are at record levels and keep rising, and yet attrition remains a massive problem. Online fraud has exploded, but the offenders are often undetectable, let alone pursuable. Social media, crypto currencies and encrypted apps are burdening law enforcement and offering many new channels for crime. Synthetic drugs are fuelling organised crime and prison violence, but new laws are not managing to do any better than previous prohibition efforts. London and other cities are seeing a rise in stabbings and other serious youth offending. The quality and health of the forensic science market is being exposed. Private probation providers are struggling to deliver basic services, or even to stay in business.

Many of these new pressures on the system are societal, and have come from outside, but some are borne of failures within the system – both operational and policy. Some reforms meant to improve outcomes have failed to deliver, or are now not fit for the current criminal justice environment. These include policies that were only recently implemented, like the radical changes to probation. Others have had some impact, like the new national policing landscape for organised crime, but have simply been overtaken by the scale and pace of today’s cyber threats.

There are also other policy issues that are suddenly topical, like those posed by the need to maintain international security cooperation after Brexit – from data-sharing, foreign national offenders and border security, to extradition arrangements. All will become more salient in the next few years as current EU arrangements are replaced.

Going forward

In response to perceptions of crisis, the common argument is to seek a return to previous funding levels and repeal the changes that have taken place – an attitude typical of the legal community – or simply abandon certain reforms, like the new system of elected Police & Crime Commissioners, before they had even had time to bed in. But even if the public finances allowed the current Government to take this approach, it would be the wrong path to follow now. 

Changes to probation, policing and legal aid have all been controversial. But no reform of a public service is ever painless, or perfect in design, or simple in implementation. The policy-making profession has its own blind-spots and is no less fallible than many other experts.  But it is simplistic to argue that these big changes were inherently defective, destined to fail, or have delivered no benefit at all. 

Take probation. The current model is clearly broken and many local services are in a bad state, but the previous setup of probation trusts was flawed too – it was inefficient, lacked accountability, and made little progress in reducing reoffending. Not to mention that today’s providers have actually delivered some basic but tangible benefits for staff and offenders on the ground that trusts somehow failed to do for years. 

A return to the status quo ante would be undesirable even if it was affordable. The world has changed and the justice system must reflect that. Where policies are not delivering the outcomes the public expect – especially in critical areas like probation and the criminal courts – then some sober second thought is needed and reform plans should be revisited. But a system under this much pressure needs a forward-thinking strategy that addresses today’s problems by adopting policies that are designed to put it in a better place tomorrow. It cannot do that if the interest groups and those working in the sector believe the only thing required is to spend more money or go back to the way things used to be.

More reform, not less

We want this new programme to help meet the growing demand for new ideas, because not enough are on offer. This cannot be about reform for reform’s sake. Clearly, the system has already undergone significant change. Budget cuts and major reforms were enacted in the early part of this decade, most notably in policing and probation. Those were wide-ranging and contested, but public and media pressure on crime had eased off, and the need for budget constraints for the justice system were not seriously challenged. 

As a consequence, that benign political environment enabled some important and long overdue reforms to be instituted. But for whole parts of the system – like sentencing, youth justice, and the magistracy – reforms were never attempted, or as with the Crown Prosecution Service, cuts and the centralisation of services were misdescribed as reform, when the only thing fundamentally different about the service was that there was less of it.  

For the Government itself, while the bandwidth of the civil service might be more limited now, there nonetheless remains a need for ongoing policy development in this space. Not least because there is unfinished business – be it professionalising policing, or reforming courts, or modernising the prison estate – all of which were on a reform path at the start of the 2015 Parliament before most of the Government’s political capital got diverted by Brexit.

Putting all reform on the backburner, regarding it as a distraction, or just a luxury for calmer times, would be complacent. Justice and security are fundamental duties of a democratic State and where those conditions are not present, the whole political system can be corrupted. If no new reforms are driven by the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice in the next few years, the system will simply deteriorate further. And a system that continues to steadily retrench, just as public concern resurfaces and rates of crime begin to rise again, is not on a sustainable path. Such a scenario would be a major policy failure but it would also be politically hazardous. As the astute political commentator James Forsyth reported last week, a “well-connected Tory” recently warned that “crime could be to the spring and summer what the NHS was to autumn and winter”.

Why this programme is different

Given this backdrop, our programme of work will seek to have a more constructive focus. We urgently need to address the lack of good ideas on how to improve the justice system. But our research and writing will not seek out failure, or add to the analysis that exposes the system’s shortcomings. Our focus is different. We are interested in novel practices, fresh ideas, and constructive proposals for improvement, drawing inspiration from wherever there is bold thinking, especially from the international sphere.

We are interested in what makes the justice system and the challenges it faces comparable with other, similar jurisdictions, and how shared problems can inspire novel solutions. We want to highlight examples of innovation from overseas and explore how policy reforms happening in other countries – under similar pressures – might offer options for reform here in the UK.

Learning from afar

In the wake of the Brexit vote it is more important than ever that we do not become an island that is isolated from good policy ideas. The famous maxim attributed to Tip O’Neill – “all politics is local” – also applies to crime, with the local context usually explaining much of the variations we see, not great global trends. But despite this, the challenges facing the police, prisons and courts in the United Kingdom are very far from localised, and hardly unique to this country. The law and cultural context is often decisive in how policy is implemented, but the nature of the challenges are familiar in many places.

Victoria in Australia had to address a surge in sexual offence reports, in part due to the impact of a high-profile commission into historical offences. After drastically reducing legal aid, British Columbia in Canada pioneered new online court channels, but is still struggling to ensure access to justice. New Zealand is dealing with the pressures of a rising prison population and the over-representation of minorities. Ontario is pursuing wide-ranging reforms to control high policing costs and weak systems of oversight. Ireland has set up a commission to examine the country’s entire domestic policing and security landscape. After centralising to create a single national force, Scotland is now experiencing a crisis of police accountability. Italy has spent the last two years fundamentally restructuring probation services.

The policy responses that have been tried elsewhere are as least as instructive as the ones previously tried at home. Following a Supreme Court ruling, Canada has had to take controversial steps to cut excessive delays in criminal trials, and the impacts of that are still being felt. New Zealand has invested heavily in police technology and tied efficiency gains to more crime prevention efforts. States in Australia are modernising their prison estate and piloting new models of custody. How have these policies worked, why might they be worth exploring, and might a similar approach be applicable here? 

How we will work

The importance of the justice system makes the policy landscape inherently controversial and well contested by the main political parties. However PMD is non-partisan, and we hope that the ideas we highlight will be of interest to politicians from all parties. More than anything, we need policy that is evidence-based, fiscally responsible, and credible with the public – not the sort that is politically opportune or short-termist.

We will also operate differently. We are not planning to publish detailed research papers or host think-tank events at party conferences. There remain several good organisations doing this sort of activity and Westminster politics continues to draw upon that sort of output. For our part, this programme will blog on international developments that are not being considered in the UK, host guest contributors, and convene leading academics and senior practitioners for seminars and site visits. 

The shared ambition across all our work will be to expose policy innovation to those with decision-making authority, either in justice agencies or in government, so reform is possible on the ground, and to do so without political bias or a partisan agenda. Our work will be overseen by an advisory board of senior practitioners.

How you can contribute

More detail on our new areas of research will follow in the coming weeks. Future blogs will look at the current system in context, discuss the policy debate, and highlight the gaps where new policy thinking is most urgently needed – some of which we will look to address with the research that is funded to date. And we want to encourage input and engagement from anyone who has expertise to share.

Please subscribe to be kept informed of activity from this new justice and security programme in 2018, follow us on Twitter and consider supporting our research by donating.

Blair Gibbs is the Research Director for the Justice and Security Project at the Project for Modern Democracy.