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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.

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‘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.

In a way, I’ve been very lucky. I cut my teeth in the world of human rights and prison reform mostly in the naughties (having started in ‘99), which globally I think was a golden decade for prison reform. Not because suddenly all the hawks became doves or there weren’t people being tortured or dying from preventable diseases in prisons but because there was a sense that none of the bad stuff was irreversible and that there was a true appetite in some countries to clean up their act and begin to adhere to international human rights covenants and instruments, and to appear civilized and respectable on the global scene. It was by no means easy but it was interesting, challenging and the balance of power and interests was such that it looked as though there was a real chance of winning for the good guys – and indeed significant victories were achieved. Prison health was back on the agenda, more sensible policies and practices were coming about for HIV in prisons, the new European Prison Rules came out in 2006 and one of the most significant global human rights compliance mechanisms, the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture came into being.  So bad stuff was going on as always, but good stuff was never too far away either.

The backdrop for all of this has been the War on Terrorism, which presented a number of challenges. Prison reformers and system professionals have had to think about how to tackle the resurgent issues of foreign nationals in prison, people on indeterminate sentences, people being held without trial and long-term prisoners. With many “leading” countries such as the US and the UK also on a hyperincarceration binge (because the expense was not an issue), the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key brigade used the predictable net-widening effects of (arguably unnecessary) anti-terror legislation which allowed for such things as indefinite detention, to lock up more “ordinary decent criminals”, most of whom come from vulnerable backgrounds and lower social strata and most of whom really don’t need to be in prison. Of course prison systems the world over are beginning to feel the bite bigtime as I warned last year but at the time of plenty and a decade of economic boom the financial cost of creating a less safe and less healthy society just didn’t figure in the debate and we had to make the argument against hyperincarceration on other grounds – public health, public safety, morality and so on.

The paradigm then was “how to do human rights with the War on Terror”. Now it’s “how to do human rights with no money”. All change.

Except very little HAS changed. Locking up more people is still making society less safe. It’s still increasing the threat of infectious diseases like TB and HIV to the general population. It’s still creating a generation of drug addicts. But the financial cost has also suddenly become unsustainable.

All is not lost though. Crisis leads to innovation. Just as, when I was working with the governments of Moldova and Kyrgyzstan 5-6 years ago and prison-driven HIV epidemics were hitting 3-5% IN SOCIETY, they had to introduce harm-reduction legislation despite bigger countries like the traditionally conservative Russia and George W. Bush’s US being totally opposed. They had no choice – defy (unfounded) convention or lose a third to a half of the country’s population to a deadly but preventable disease.

We are nearly at this point now. The most recent Bank for International Settlements report (the group of heads of central banks around the world) warns that countries potentially including the UK may not be able to bail out their banking systems and public sectors when Credit Crunch mark II hits. We don’t have to agree with their findings, but wouldn’t it make sense to stop wasting billions on  locking “bad” people up to make them worse, make everyone less safe, and less healthy?

As I suggested last year, you can easily cut the prison population by 30-50% by not remanding people who don’t need to be there and not jailing the very large number of non-violent offenders on short sentences. But you need courage. As a politician, you must step away from the megaphone and stop rattling your sabre, and think about the safety and welfare of the people who elected you, which of course now more than ever should include their financial safety and welfare. There is still time – the effects of the kind of moratorium that penal reformers are proposing would take 3-6 months to filter through the system. It shouldn’t matter who is in charge – socialists, liberals or conservatives – we are now talking about this being a matter of national safety and as such it must be above party politics.

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