The Idea for this series of events came from a conference on Scottish social welfare, run in the wake of last year’s Independence Referendum. The conference raised questions as to whether there might be particular Scottish values that might inform the country’s approach to issues of social welfare generally but also, more specifically, to criminal justice.

At a political level the need to ask questions of what Scottish public policy might look like is highlighted in the findings of the Christie Commission, which calls for a realignment of the respective roles of the state, citizens and communities. At another level, questioning the status quo reflects a wider willingness in post-Referendum Scotland to de-stabilise what we might previously have taken for granted. This new mood is summed up by the Director of Common Weal, Robin McAlpine, in his introduction to the organisation’s recent Book of Ideas, in which he states: “Our aim here is first and foremost to disprove claims Scotland can’t do more, do things differently, achieve greater equality, move to a different kind of economy. There is an unprecedented mood in Scotland for something that represents a new politics. We hope people will at least be able to see that what we’ve ‘aye done’ isn’t the only option for our future.” The Independent MSP Jean Urquart suggests that “This book could be the challenge to debate, and leave the parliamentarians following the people’s lead.”

There is no lack of political initative in respect of criminal justice policy. Intentions are laudable. Yet, for all the ambition explicit within recent justice reform efforts, progress has been slow; new and progressive ambitions for justice continue to be pursued using old methods, revealing a continued reliance on structures, legislation and policy, performance management and revised funding streams as the principal means of effecting change. These existing levers for change, whilst important, are rarely transformative.  They do not engage with the significant philosophical and socio-cultural constraints and enablers to reform, including, for example, Scotland’s historically complex relationship to punishment and welfare in delivering justice.  Nor do they provide opportunity, or inspiration, for the kinds of public engagement and collaborative action that we now know from research is needed to make public service transformation work.

The emergent national mood prompts this series. We want to open up cross cultural debate about how we might do things differently in the field of criminal justice and about what a ‘new’, more progressive, more humane approach to policy and practice in this area might look like. We take our cue from the spirit of participative democracy evident in the grassroots campaign led by Women For Independence which influenced the Scottish Government’s decision to cancel their proposal for a new women’s prison at Greenock. The intention of this proposal is to open up and harness this growing involvement of civic society on an issue of pressing social concern but one which, until now, has largely been the preserve of politicians, the legal profession and a populist press. In seeking to, centrally, involve civic society we are making a case that ideas of justice ought to belong within a broader ‘civitas’ rather than primarily academic and professional interests. These events will explore, through theory and practice, how citizens and communities can play an active role in shaping, and sharing responsibility for, criminal justice responses and outcomes.

We are mindful that the implementation of the Kilbrandon proposals for youth justice in the 1960s was successful because there was widespread recognition that the existing system was no longer fit for purpose and because there was an appetite for change across a broad spectrum of society. There are sufficient signs that a similar mood for change exists today in relation to responses to offending behaviour and that this can be harnessed and mobilised to advance progressive change.

In facilitating this participatory, multi-disciplinary and cross-strata conversation our aim is to move beyond the traditional boundaries and polarisations of ‘justice talk’, and to reposition dialogue firmly in the public realm.  In this respect this programme is about more than facilitating a programme of knowledge exchange, it is also, critically, about fostering the political-professional-citizen alliances, or ‘communities of action’, needed to enable agreed values to take root and impact across multiple strands of Scottish society.  The scope and ambition of the programme is broad, in so far as it seeks to trigger and mobilise a shift in the way that we think about, talk about and share responsibility for Scottish criminal justice.  At the same time, our ambition is framed by a clear aim to impact on and augment existing reform efforts to reduce the use of imprisonment in Scotland and to see the development of more humane, participatory and effective responses to offending behaviour.

We hope that this blog will become a forum for those who wish to contribute to this conversation