Investigating the potential for social innovation in the criminal justice system

24.03.2014 Blog

Written by Anton Shelupanov, Associate Director at the Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI). CJI’s website is

Hate crime is a highly emotive issue, and not something which one easily associates with social innovation. And yet, imagine coming up against it in your day to day work as a probation officer and eventually, not always in a welcoming environment, coming up with a process which not only improves safety outcomes but gets adopted by a whole host of probation trusts around England & Wales. Indeed, this is exactly what Liz Dixon, a practitioner at London Probation, did. Her innovative approach, which was initially seen as radical and viewed with suspicion by some, now informs the way offenders who have committed ideology and belief based crimes are dealt with throughout the UK. Her story, along with those of many other social innovation pioneers in the world of criminal justice in the UK, is detailed in the new book from the Centre for Justice Innovation, StreetCraft, and goes to show the value of social innovation in this sector.

Over the past decade social innovation has become steadily more scientific. It has gone from being something enterprising people with a sense of social mission did when they saw that the status quo wasn’t working to something much more concrete. Much work has been done to study and describe what prompts it to arise, the conditions and support mechanisms which are needed to help it flourish, and what ways there are to attach concrete measurements to its outcomes in order to make the case that it is needed, and necessary.

Many sectors have made great strides in embracing and codifying social innovation – this is certainly the case for health, education, social care, urban planning and other settings. Yet criminal justice is still often seen as the poor cousin in this relationship. Conventional wisdom suggests that the justice sector is a low innovation one. This is sometimes attributed to its quasi-military heritage and the resulting hierarchical command structures. At other times this is put down to the fact that practitioners working in criminal justice have to deal with a client population with exceptionally high levels of need. The needs are not only criminogenic but also social, resulting in the main focus being on continual containment and management of crises. The obvious question to ask, then, is: is this actually true?

With the Centre for Justice Innovation’s recent book – StreetCraft - my colleagues and I attempted to travel toward finding an answer. We interviewed just under thirty criminal justice pioneers across the UK, and it is clear that there is a wealth of practitioner led grass roots social innovation in the sector. Moreover, it seems that the sector has a fairly large untapped capacity for more. What is missing, it would appear, are support structures within some of the larger organisations, both statutory and non-governmental - for example police forces or large service delivery charities.

One of the reasons for this – certainly in the UK – is the government’s obsession with continually tinkering with legislation and systemic arrangements, at the expense of losing focus on what good practice looks like. This is the case in some other jurisdictions also, and no European Union country  is entirely safe from its criminal justice agencies being subjected to tenders, invitation to bid, contract negotiations, service level agreements and frequent policy consultations.
Another is the way in which senior managers can be risk averse, perhaps due to the very security-conscious nature of their work. Whilst inventors like James Dyson or Thomas Edison have said that numerous failed prototypes prior to a successful invention are a hallmark of its quality, it’s hard to imagine a senior manager in charge of community safety coming out with something similar. The famous Edison quote “I have not failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work” is hard to conceive coming from the lips of a chief constable or local authority anti-social behaviour manager.

But resistance to innovation is rarely bare-faced. Often officials who would prefer not to risk it find (at times understandable and somewhat legitimate) reasons to stop something new being tried on their watch. Lack of capacity or resource due to the volume of high demand day to day work is one. The absence of appropriate partnerships to overcome silos is another. And then of course there is the question of evidence for the efficacy of a proposed new approach, and it’s often the big one.
Of course, as we know, in the social innovation game there is no straightforward answer to the evidence conundrum. Often there is evidence that the current approach is not working. Less often there may be some untested academic modelling, or a strong hunch as to what new approach may work, based on months and years of professional experience. A lesson which resounded time and again in the many conversations we had with criminal justice pioneers was: evidence is important but don’t be a slave to it. The course of social innovation rarely runs smooth and sometimes you have to take action and gather evidence as you go along. In these cases it’s also important to be open to mid-course adjustment, refining new practice in light of emerging data.

We feel that it’s important to support emerging criminal justice innovators early on. Our work to produce the book StreetCraft has prompted us to launch our own innovation – StreetCraft Scholarships. Delivered in partnership with two highly regarded organisations – the Young Foundation and Clinks – the Scholarships will offer intensive strategic and development support to justice pioneers in taking new practice ideas to the next level. At present these are available to UK-based practitioners, but a discussion on similar work in other jurisdictions may be welcome. Right now, it’ll be interesting to see how the first wave of applicants will progress.

It’s important to remember that systems and ideas are only part of the social innovation story. Our research in the form of StreetCraft has helped demonstrate that the most important component in all of this is people – brave creative individuals with a strong sense of social mission. Tinkering with legislation and contractual arrangements is by the by; and as useful as generating new evidence is, it is not the be all and end all. Only by supporting the people who make things happen, can we hope to build a social innovation focused criminal justice system fit for the 21st Century.