In search of court innovators: Q&As on Better Courts

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September 20, 2013 // By: Phil Bowen , Director, Centre for Justice Innovation

Our new report Better Courts sets out the case that finding innovative ways to make our courts more effective is the key to reducing crime. It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that at the launch event last week, the first question asked was. “So, who are the innovators?” 

Unfortunately, neither I, nor my co-author Stephen Whitehead had a simple answer to the question. In the 11 case studies the report is based on, the drive to make things better came from many places: from courts staff, from sentencers, from probation, from the NHS, from local charities. Courts themselves were in the forefront in some innovations and the last on board in others.

As the Q&A went on, though, we were able to offer some more definite answers. There were questions about how the principles of better courts— fairness, a  focus on the backgrounds and needs of the people, acting with authority and acting swiftly— would apply to female defendants. We noted that specialist court sittings for women can develop a cadre of sentencers who understand the distinctive needs of women and how to respond to them. However, women are still a small minority of defendants and some courts may simply not see enough women to make this feasible.

Many audience members noted that this kind of specialist court is often seen as very hard to manage but we suggested that looking at projects which do specialist courts well, like West London which holds weekly sittings for drug-using offenders, might offer insights into how practical barriers like these can be overcome.

Some participants suggested that courts lacked the incentives and information to focus on reducing crime. While crime reduction is one of the five purposes of sentencing, there is no measure of how effectively courts are at reducing reoffending. And it’s almost impossible for individual judges and magistrates to find out whether an offender has committed another crime unless they happen to come before them. As one respondent suggested, the current situation was like asking surgeons to perform operations but never getting to find out if the patient lived or died.

Of course, it’s very easy in a discussion like this to identify the obstacles to better courts. But the striking about our launch was the enthusiasm and energy of all the participants. Events like this, though, are only the start. Over the coming months and years the work of the Better Courts programme will be to not only to find out who the innovators are, but how we can help. 

Phil Bowen is the Director of the Centre for Justice Innovation. The new report, Better Courts: Cutting Crime through Court Innovation, a collaboration between nef and the Centre was published last week.

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Criminal Justice

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