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Activism, Penal excess

Building collective capacity for policy change

Deborah H. Drake and Neena Samota on the need for collaborative working to build socially justice alternatives to criminal justice.

In 1969, Noam Chomsky set out his opposition to the Vietnam War in a book entitled, American Power and the New Mandarins.  In this work, Chomsky raises the question of ‘war guilt’.  In particular, he examines the complicity of the public and of academics, especially, – as bystanders – when governments act on the collective public behalf in ways that are inherently, pervasively and enduringly harmful.  Chomsky asks: ‘As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place?’

When we think of the numerous ‘wars’ that have been launched in the name of ‘justice’ over the last half century – the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war on crime’, the ‘war on terror’ –how would most people would rate their own complicity in these policy decisions?  Chomsky spoke directly about the role of the academic or ‘intellectual’ and their responsibility to ‘speak truth to power’.  He stated:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression…The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what [Dwight] Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy (Chomsky, 1967).

We believe that there is an activist role to be played by academic criminologists and researchers, front-line service providers and grass-roots organisations.  One possibility for facilitating larger scale change in criminal justice policy may be through the development of ‘local hubs’ – coordinated, multi-site public initiatives concerned with sharing expertise and experience and stimulating collective debate and wide ranging public engagement.

Building collaborative initiatives

Successive governments at both local and national levels continue to introduce new crime and justice policies that claim to be the latest ‘answer’ to problems of crime and social disorder.  Political leaders from both the left and the right have experimented with tough on crime, ‘prison works’ agendas, community punishment schemes, anti-social behaviour legislation, and many other similar policy initiatives.  However, at practitioner and grass-roots levels, many of those who work at the front-line of criminal justice services and third sector criminal justice organisations have long argued that these types of ‘harsh justice’, exclusionary policies simply do not work and, in fact, tend to make things worse.

Turning collective community knowledge into meaningful action for policy change depends on a number of factors including a means and approach ‘into’ communities, a way of stimulating community involvement and debate or, alternatively, a means by which the communities themselves can organise, raise awareness and get their voices heard by those who have the power to make change happen.  In bridging the gap between communities and policy makers, a key role is often played by frontline, voluntary and community sector services.  However, since the financial crisis of 2008 and a government response that is organised around ‘austerity measures’, the vitality of front line services has been brought under threat.

A systemic approach to building collective capacity for policy change needs to start with strengthening relationships between several stakeholders, namely: voluntary and community sector, funders and academics.  Together they hold a collective capacity to frame issues, present opportunities for change, mediate conflict and influence change.

Engaging more widely with communities and the general public about criminal justice concerns can be a particularly challenging and complex task.  Crime and criminal justice issues are inherently ‘public concerns’ and often the source of anxiety and outrage for members of the general public.  At the same time, however, they are also areas which many in society have very little first-hand knowledge of.  So, whilst everyone may have an opinion on a particular form of crime or criminal justice sanction, there are widespread misunderstandings about:

  • the factors that can contribute to illegal activity;
  • the power structures that draw public attentions towards some activities that are harmful whilst ignoring others; and
  • the inherent injustices that are effectively ‘built-in’ to many criminal justice policies and practices.

Many of those who have experienced the devastations of crime and criminal ‘justice’ first hand – as victims, as perpetrators, as family members or as those who work or research alongside them – hold certain kinds of knowledges that need to be more widely and publicly shared, contested and debated.

It was perhaps with a concern about the lack of open public discussion on crime and justice matters that the Reclaim Justice Network began to take shape.

The Reclaim Justice Network

The Reclaim Justice Network (RJN) began with a public meeting in September 2012, aimed at challenging the notion of ‘Penal Excess’.  Those who came along to that first meeting seemed hungry for change – and not just in relation to prisons and punishment.  Discussions quickly turned to other aspects of the criminal justice system that people were worried about – policing, stop and search, victim support, over-representation of black and minority ethnic groups in the criminal justice system, outsourcing and privatisation of criminal justice services, and the list went on.

Since the first meeting, the network has slowly begun to take shape.  It is now a collaboration of individuals, groups, campaigners, activists, trade unionists, practitioners and researchers and people most directly affected by criminal justice systems who are working together to radically reduce the size and scope of criminal justice systems and to build effective and socially just alternatives. The current, pressing, goal of the RJN is to establish local groups and regional hubs and to support them to organise and campaign for change.

Mobilising for criminal justice policy change

The current focus of the Reclaim Justice Network is to organise a series of local public events, in major cities around the UK, that aim to stimulate conversations around reducing the size and scope of the criminal justice system and to encourage local organisation of future events to take these conversations forward.  It is still early days in these processes, but the long term aim is to stimulate conversation, generate collective ideas for alternatives and establish a ‘movement’ toward thinking about crime and justice differently by, specifically, recognising the way the current criminal justice system focuses on some harms but ignores others and is, in its own workings, a perpetrator of further harm.

So, where does the example of the Reclaim Justice Network take us and what might be the role in such endeavours of those with ‘inside’ knowledge – that is, the academic criminologist or researcher, the criminal justice or voluntary service provider, or those who have found themselves drawn directly into the criminal justice machine?

Chomsky’s words should serve to remind those in the research (and wider practitioner communities) of the responsibility they hold for the privileges they are afforded.  We suggest that a particular historical and social moment has dawned where more equal and sophisticated debate has become possible and holds greater potential.  Our example of the Reclaim Justice Network – as a progressive organisation of individuals, drawn together by common concerns – demonstrates that we might be at a particular juncture when a new set of roles and, perhaps, responsibilities for academics, service providers, practitioners and informed individuals can be defined.

Where the work of the Network will ultimately lead, in terms of generating solutions, we don’t yet know.  However, by setting forth a set of collective concerns and stimulating widespread – yet focused – debate, we are exploring new approaches, new thinking and new alternatives to crime and justice problems in spaces outside the academy, outside the existing criminal justice system and outside the established spheres of political and social power.

Deborah H. Drake is Senior Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University.  She is author of Prisons, Punishment and the Pursuit of Security (Palgrave, 2012).  Twitter: @dh_drake. Neena Samota is visiting lecturer in Criminology at University of Westminster. She is also the Chair for Voice4Change England. Both authors are members of the Reclaim Justice Network steering group.


This article is an abridged version of a paper presented to the British Society of Criminology Conference, Liverpool 10-12 July, 2014 and the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control Annual Conference, Liverpool 3-6 September 2014. Download the full version of: Building Collective Capacity for Criminal Justice Policy Change

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