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Criminal Justice

In Search of the Innovators

Phil Bowen, Director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, seeks out those prepared to think more deeply about the purpose and efficacy of sentencing

Our new report Better Courts sets out the case that court-led innovation is the key to reducing crime. It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that at the launch event on September 9th, the first question asked was. “So, who are the innovators?”
Unfortunately, neither I, nor my co-author Stephen Whitehead had a simple answer to the question. In the 11 case studies the report is based on, the drive to make things better came from many places: from courts staff, from sentencers, from probation, from the NHS, from local charities. Courts themselves were in the forefront in some innovations and the last on board in others.
As the Q&A went on, there were questions about how the principles of better courts— fairness, a focus on the backgrounds and needs of the people, acting with authority and acting swiftly— would apply to female defendants. We’ve already seen, gender-specific developed in some places to give women offenders in the community the support they need. Expanding specialist court sittings for women might be an answer in some areas. However other courts may simply not see enough women offenders to make this feasible. The discussion also touched on the more general barriers to holding specialist court sessions, but we suggested we could learn from projects like West London drug court how have achieved precisely that.
Some participants suggested that courts and sentencers lacked the incentives to focus on reducing crime. While crime reduction is one of the five purposes of sentencing, judges and magistrates get next to no feedback on sentences’ effectiveness, leaving them unable to know how to improve their effectiveness. As one respondent suggested, the current situation was like asking sentencers to be “surgeons who then never get to the see the patient after the operation.”
Of course, events like this, and engaging conversations like we had, are only the start. It is easy once you have published a new paper to want to move on to the next thing. But Stephen and I are committed over the next couple of years not only to find out who the innovators are, but how we can help.