Scotland's justice system needs a new philosophy with a focus on prevention – Karyn McCluskey

My conversations with people around the country this week have been characterised by three things: the burden of the backlog created by Covid; government proposals for transforming adult care and criminal justice social work; and how tired people feel.

Karyn McCluskey says Scotland needs a philosophical discussion around changes to its justice system
Karyn McCluskey says Scotland needs a philosophical discussion around changes to its justice system

The key theme is that change, whether sought or imposed, is a painful process.

There is a national tiredness, with people worn from managing schooling, home life, financial worries and now the darker nights have arrived. It must feel overwhelming. More than ever, people need the opportunity and space to express how they feel, as being heard is crucial, being listened to even more so.

The other two conversations about burden of work and the need for change are complicated by the cumulative organisational tiredness. The need to fix something whilst it’s moving demands much from us, managing the complexity of the day-to-day, whilst crafting space to imagine what else it could look like is a challenge. But it’s a necessary one.

I’ve written about the Christie Commission report on the future of public services in the past and while we have done much, we’re still not focusing enough on preventing the problems which affect the lives of people, families and communities, sometimes leading to involvement in the justice system.

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Auditor General Stephen Boyle wrote a few weeks ago that Christie’s “clarion call cannot wait another 10 years”, and I agree that now is the time. There are always much easier things to achieve, demonstrate and set a definitive end date. Effectively addressing the issues which affect people takes boldness, a willingness to stay the course, involving those who are most affected in the decision making. We need to define a destination, plan the journey and keep on the path until we get there.

Planning the route and articulating that vision of the future will need a process of Socratic inquiry: asking a series of questions til we get to the desired knowledge, answer and consensus.

Questions about viewpoint or perspective, implications of action we may take or challenging assumptions: a series of open-ended questions that help us develop a deeper understanding of proposed change.

What would be the alternative to what we have now in justice? Who does it benefit? What would be the consequences of this? Perhaps through this we could get to the concept of Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point, “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire”.

We do need to get to the tipping point around justice as we seem to have done around early years and supporting young people. That’s not all in place, but we have embraced the evidence and moved towards putting it in action. Good social policy is generally good crime policy. Supporting children, young people and families will help transform Scotland over many decades.

We all must engage in that philosophical discussion around what change could look like in justice and what difference it could make to the people and the country that we live in. This should be at the heart of our decision-making and of any transformation. As Socrates said: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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