How Dutch and Danes can help us fight crime – Karyn McCluskey

HMP Saughton in Edinburgh (Picture: Greg Macvean)
HMP Saughton in Edinburgh (Picture: Greg Macvean)
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Fairness and logic are require if we are to change criminal justice writes Karyn McCluskey.

I recently spent two days in Denmark looking at their justice system. It’s useful to engage with leaders in other similarly sized countries about how they have approached some of the wicked problems we all face.

Their low level of imprisonment, creative use of electronic monitoring, small custody units for both men and women, lower levels of violence within their institutions and a more thoughtful approach to reducing the number of victims seemed eminently sensible and in keeping with a country that sees itself as socially just.

The Danes understood where they had to make improvement – the remand population was a challenge for them also.

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It chimed with a recent article I read about the Dutch system which mentioned that they had two aims: to prevent another crime and to reduce psychiatric suffering and the social problems that often accompany offending. The results were that they had transformed their justice system, with comparatively low levels of imprisonment and a real commitment to crime prevention.

Good people in bad systems

So where will we be in Scotland be in five years’ time? Will fairness, logic and evidence prevail? Will we take a deep breath and invest in our families and young people, understand that life is changing and that our ability to cope with social media and peer pressure is compromised?

I confess to suffering some symptoms of stress recently. My dentist says I have been grinding my teeth. Yet I have always liked facing up to difficult issues and I have tried really hard to engage with those who I serve, for I am entrusted to improve the outcomes for them.

The system is huge and there are so many good people in bad systems. I know people think this is all about the systems, but in truth this is all about the people.

I am a realist, so I know change can be painful and difficult and I always take my cue from those who receive our services – do they think it’s getting better?

I see the third sector being eroded and I see others clinging onto the status quo, to the detriment of delivering change.

This is what gives me sleepless nights. The time, energy and sheer relentlessness of driving change I can take, but when I am faced with obstinate self-interest or point-blank refusal to accept evidence that overlooks or deliberately ignores logical reasoning and moral purpose, I have to admit that it grinds me down.

And, as my dentist said, it’s wrecking my teeth and my sleep too.

However, I am also an optimist and there is more than one way to reach the top of this particular hill; if the people in power will not listen, we must all shout louder; if they hide, we must seek them out and knock at the door till they answer; and if they talk down our mission, we must spread it further and wider until it is impossible to ignore.

But the realist in me knows that this will take a nation. Society moves quickly, and the longer change is deferred the further behind we will fall and the more we will have to make up – and when you measure that in people’s lives, every delay is an outrage.

Do we need to wait for catastrophe and crisis before we act? Petty squabbles and gripes have no place in the journey for better lives: lead, follow or stand aside.

Karyn McCluskey is the chief executive of Community Justice Scotland.