The Case for Justice Innovation

At the end of September 2010 I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak to the Portuguese Secretary of State for Justice and his colleagues from prisons, probation, the police, the Bar and the judiciary in Lisbon, Portugal. The event was organised by the Associação Portuguesa para o Desenvolvimento das Comunicações.

The text of my keynote address is reproduced below, and I hope may be helpful in framing some of the higher-level discussion about the value of innovation in the justice sector.


‘The case for justice innovation’  – key note speech by Anton Shelupanov given to APDC Conference in Lisbon on 29 September 2010

Dear Colleagues,

I am grateful and honoured to be speaking in front of such a distinguished, professional and knowledgeable audience today. I am especially grateful to the chairman of APDC, Mr Diogo Vasconcelos for the invitation to work with you. I apologise that I am not speaking Portuguese, but I understand that our interpreters are working very hard to make sure we understand each other.

I represent the Young Foundation, which is a centre for social innovation based in East London, in England. The area where our office is situated is a deprived area, with many challenges, but it is also very vibrant and home to some very inspiring people. We work in the UK and internationally.

The Young Foundation is named after Michael Young who for over 50 years created many innovative organisations to address unmet social needs, including such internationally renowned ones as the Open University and the peace-building charity International Alert. He passed away some years ago and today we follow his tradition of identifying unmet social needs through research and creating practical innovative solutions to address them.

I work specifically on the criminal justice programme, which is why it is my honour to speak with you today. My own background is in prison management, which is an area in which I worked for nearly 10 years prior to joining the Young Foundation. In that time have worked with a number prison systems, from England to China and have visited, and worked with, many prisons. I am glad that I have an international perspective, because from an international penal reform point of view Portugal presents a special interest.

At the beginning of this millennium, Portugal had one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe. It shared this unfortunate “honour” with England and Spain.

Those two countries continued to send more and more people to prison, with no visible improvement on reoffending rates, high rates of addiction and all the problems of ill health and suicide associated with overcrowding. They continue to do this, even though there are many voices – including some senior government ministers – saying that this is not a healthy way – in any sense – to address the questions of crime and justice.

Portugal did not choose this route. While those two countries locked more and more people up, Portugal’s prison population rate began to decline, with the benefits to society which come with this. This was not an accident.

It was Nelson Mandela who said that you could judge the level of civilization in society not by how it treats its most prominent citizens, but those at the bottom. And Portugal demonstrated its commitment to this by pursuing a drugs policy which is held in high regard by reformers around the world, and by seeking to apply problem solving principles to the issue of drugs. Indeed, Portugal has a fine tradition of problem-solving justice.

It is not a coincidence that the EMCDDA – one of the most respected European institutions speaking out on drugs is based here in Lisbon. It has plenty of good practice to draw on.

Moreover, it is very reassuring that at this gathering today all branches of the criminal justice system are represented. In the UK, where I work, this would be a rarity – most branches of the criminal justice system are stuck in their own silos and as such a gathering like this, where all agencies come together to find a way forward, would not happen often.

So I believe this country’s justice system to be fertile ground for embracing innovation and recognising that it is a necessity, not just a pleasant add-on which you could do if desired during the good times.

An innovation- based justice system is not an impossibility, but our sector overall is regarded as a low innovation one. Other sectors like health or education are supposed to be great at harnessing and implementing innovation, so what about us in the justice sector?

In part this is to do with our sector’s quasi-military history. In part it is because we are often too busy fire-fighting – dealing with escapes, suicides, security breaches – and even actual fires when a prisoner sets fire to their cell – to be thinking strategically about what we want our part of this sector to achieve in the future.

I firmly believe that there is no lack of innovative capacity – in England alone there are 900 NGOs working with the criminal justice system – but an issue of coherent support, evaluation, dissemination and scaling.

We have recently proposed the creation of a UK Centre for Justice Innovation, not dissimilar to the successful New York Center for Court Innovation, which runs experimental projects to address offending and helps scale them when they work well. During its lifetime both crime and the use of custody in New York have dropped significantly, resulting in improved public safety and savings to public funds. The centre should be independent from government, so as to allow it to be experimental without the government having to take on that risk.

The inventor Dyson – a great technological innovator – recently proudly said that he created several thousand prototypes of his revolutionary vacuum cleaner before creating the successful model. For him the many experiments were a source of pride and a mark of the quality of his work. Can you imagine a prison governor, police chief, probation officer, judge or politician proudly making a similar claim about their caseload?

As well as creating a safe space to fail – something most practitioners fear because of public opinion considerations, such a centre would provide a strong base of independent research. It would evaluate demonstration projects and understand the lessons from developing them – aiding their scaling and / or replication. Because one thing that is missing in most European criminal justice systems is a strong and independent research, development and evaluation capacity. I do not need to tell you that in Europe we are not very strong on evidence-based policy making in the criminal justice field, although the drugs policy in Portugal is a rare example which goes against the trend. And of course it would unlock the great entrepreneurial potential which the many talented grassroots professionals and volunteers who work with offenders have.

I have a question for you, dear colleagues. Might there be a space for such a centre in Portugal?

Another idea I’d like you to consider is one about financing innovative responses to preventing, reducing and addressing crime and re-offending. In most European criminal justice systems, right now there is no more money. So the argument goes, we can’t afford reform any more, but we can’t afford the system as it is either. It’s not about investing to save any more. It’s about saving to save. And even in countries like Portugal who have worked hard to reduce their prison population, the prison system remains a costly and not the most effective intervention.

So I’d like to propose the idea of Social Impact Bonds. This would involve local government generating a hybrid of charitable funding and private sector investment to run innovative schemes which result in a reduction of demand on the justice system – less reoffending, fewer court appearances, less use of custody. The savings by the system are then repaid to the implementing organisation, with a return on the initial investment. This could become a powerful tool for ensuring the local solutions are not left to monolithic national agencies.

My organization, the Young Foundation, has recently published this book – Turning the Corner: beyond incarceration and re-offending. Unfortunately it is currently only available in English. The ideas I described can be found in there, and are discussed in greater detail. It is available electronically on the Young Foundation website, and I have a hard copy here.

Finally I’d like to talk about the role of technology in supporting innovation in our sector. I think its key role should be enabling people to be more innovative. For example, the use of remote courts can sometimes de-humanise the system. Or it could support a network of robust alternatives to custody, where an individual appears before a judge when arrested and then a judge, via a video link can recommend that that person is taken into the care of a representative of a community organization who is waiting for them at the police station and then works with them on their issues. They do this in the Bronx, and this stops thousands of people going to prison every year where they would have done before. Or, on a much more basic level, helping young people on probation keep their appointments via SMS or social networks. Or using video to inspire young offenders in creating visual CVs and getting jobs as Media for Development do, or inspiring young people to condemn violence as the impressive Cure Violence project does. It’s not all about electronic tagging and CCTV, and reducing human contact. It can be about enhancing the quality and meaningfulness of human contact.

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time. I agree with him, and I think there is a strong appetite in this room for not doing the same thing over and over again.

So I would like to leave you, dear colleagues, with a question and a challenge. How can Portugal’s criminal justice system become a world leader on embracing, implementing, scaling and disseminating both social and systemic innovation?

I hope that some of the suggestions I have put forward may stimulate this discussion, even if colleagues do not agree with all of them. Thank you so much for your time and attention.

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