If our justice system is to be fit for the future, charities must lead the way
Governments have come and gone with similar tinkering at the edges of a crumbling criminal justice system, but the edifice has never seemed so close to collapsing. This has left an increasing void to fill for the voluntary sector to innovate and influence change in the face of dysfunctional public services and policies. In this piece, Theo Clay, who leads the social impact think tank and consultancy NPC’s criminal justice portfolio, explores what makes the role of the voluntary sector so transformative for justice reform – and how we can harness that power to truly fix our criminal justice system.
Broken, crumbling, not fit for purpose. For those working on criminal justice, superlatives about the system come thick, fast, and frankly, tediously. Even before the twin shocks of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, charities have had to weather years of policy turbulence and underfunding that stem from criminal justice being used as a political football. We have now had nine Justice Secretaries in ten years, each with their own agenda and priorities.
We all know that prevention is cheaper than a cure. But charities are increasingly forced to act as accident and emergency for our justice system. Our own analysis found 86% of charitable funding is supporting people trying to tackle problems and prevent reoffending after they had been released from prison—effectively fixing problems that should have been solved earlier or should never have occurred at all.
Charities are doing vital work here, supporting people when they need it—offering help with addiction, family support and helping people into employment. They are good at it too, charities’ independence from the state allows them to build trust and work with individuals who may mistrust statutory agents.
However this inevitably leads to a lot of hand-wringing from charities and funders. How far are we propping up state failure? Are we enabling a broken system to continue limping on, hiding its fundamental flaws and contradictions? And of course, in the face of increasing demand, inflationary pressures and reduced income—what will happen when the voluntary sector can no longer play this role?
We spend too little time thinking about what the role of philanthropy and the voluntary sector is in transforming the justice system, making it fit for the 21st century. Because from the abolition of the death penalty to the creation of the living wage, there are few examples of transformative change in our laws or public services where civil society has not played a crucial role. When they are most successful, charities should be more R&D than A&E. If our justice system is to become fit for the future, charities have no option but to lead the way.
There is a twin role that charities must play here. Innovating, and then influencing wider change.
Charities have the unique ability to expand our notion of what is possible. Because of the nature of voluntary sector funding, charities can take risks that government can’t and businesses won’t. Charities and the philanthropists who fund them can and should take risks to see what works. This isn’t to say that all charity services all the time must be new, but investing in new approaches which have the potential to scale or to be transformative must be a core part of any trust, foundation or philanthropist’s grant-making.
Charities like Revolving Doors, the Prison Reform Trust and User Voice have been pioneering new and different methods of ensuring an individual in the justice system leads the way in how the services around them are designed and delivered. Barrow Cadbury’s Transition to Adulthood programme increased understanding of the different ways that young adults should be treated in a justice context based on new understandings of how young adults perceive risk. The aptly named Centre for Justice Innovation has pioneered thinking around how early intervention approaches can stop young people from falling into the justice system.
Secondly, influencing change.
This happens at many levels, working directly with practitioners to change how services are delivered through programmes like Unlocked Graduates, through to the lobbying and advocacy efforts of charities like the Howard League for Penal Reform. In our adversarial political system, there is not a lot of willingness from the opposition to suggest evidence-based changes to our justice system for fear of being labelled ‘soft on crime’. It falls to charities to push them, and the government, to be better.
This also involves speaking to the public. Frameworks UK and Transform Justice have made great strides in this area, identifying messages that will appeal to the public and ways that we can explain the benefits behind moving to an evidence-based justice system.
All of this costs money. And this is where philanthropy comes in. It is hard to tell a philanthropist to abandon a person in desperate need just because, in a perfect world, the state would be helping them instead. But when this becomes the primary role of philanthropic giving, when nearly nine in ten pounds given to criminal justice charities goes on tackling issues the state should have solved, then we will not see long-term change. The best philanthropists, trusts and foundations in every sector have found a way to balance immediate needs with investment in long-term change, but in criminal justice this balance has become skewed. This must be corrected.
Philanthropists and charities have always been at their best when they help us imagine a different world, and then will it into reality by harnessing our collective voice. In criminal justice, they must do so again. More than that, they are the only ones who can.