Collective approaches to crime are essential

Collective action by public services and the community is the answer to deep-rooted social issues, says Anthony Painter

By Anthony Painter, Director of the RSA Action and Research Centre

Follow Anthony on Twitter @anthonypainter

There is a heavy price to be paid for fragmentation of the criminal justice system. It is a price paid by communities, victims, witnesses, professionals and, yes, perpetrators themselves. When a system is fragmented, it struggles to innovate. When it pulls together, then innovation becomes possible.

In Brooklyn, New York, the power of such focused innovation has been demonstrated at the Red Hook Center for Court Innovation. In the words of its director, Greg Berman, the Center for Court Innovation “exists to work with defence attorneys, probation officials, prosecutors, clerks, police officers and community groups [to] test new approaches to the delivery of justice”. Without the buy-in of all these players in the process, innovation becomes impossible. The centre describes its approach as “rigorous, collaborative planning and an emphasis on using data to document results”. It operates across a range of activities, from reintegration of offender programmes to interventions that focus on mental health, domestic violence, and juvenile crime and anti-social behaviour. The results have been clear.

Adult defendants handled at the centre were 10% less likely to commit new crimes than people who were processed in a traditional courthouse; juvenile defendants were 20% less likely to reoffend. Further analysis indicated that these differences were sustained well beyond the primary two-year follow-up period. In a comprehensive evaluation, savings have been found to outweigh costs by a factor of two to one.

The point is that systemic change, from which all benefit, requires innovation and that requires tight collaboration between different elements of the system. Unfortunately, fragmentation is still evident in the community safety arena.

Recently, the RSA outlined a vision for the future of policing for London, entitled Safer Together. When looking at current work, we discovered a whole range of great coordinated services where the police, local authorities, the voluntary sector and London’s communities were working very effectively together. For example, they collaborated to address challenges such as mental health in Newham and Camden, anti-social behaviour in Sutton, domestic violence in west London, gangs in Hackney and community engagement in Haringey. What was too often absent, though, was the joining up of disparate leadership to accelerate and scale impacts across London. What applies to London applies equally to other parts of the country.

Too often in UK governance there is not simply fragmentation between services, but between levels of leadership too. Police leadership often covers a different patch from leadership in the NHS, in education or in local government. Moreover, services are funded with radically different objectives in mind. In a tight funding situation, this can mean even more distance between overlapping missions, and it usually does.

Expanding requirements

Meanwhile, crime is evolving and in the process placing additional demands on the police. There is an increase in both crimes of proximity and those initiated and even perpetrated at distance. Dealing with the latter category requires access to new global networks, highly specialist skills and a new understanding among the public of the risks that they face. The former category is just as demanding, if not more so. A well-documented example is that of demands placed on police to respond to incidents involving a member of the public with mental health needs creating a disturbance and placing either themselves or another at risk. In London, such incidents now occupy up to 20% of police time. The police service on its own does not have the power or capacity to manage these demands. Reducing crime and increasing safety is a coordination-heavy endeavour, but the police often find themselves without the powers or capacity necessary to have the maximum impact.

Innovation and coordination are difficult and require leaders of different levels to enable greater collaboration and better use of resources. In London’s case, it is the mayor who has the ability to unlock city-wide impacts. In other city-regions it may be the leader of a combined authority. Our report supported the establishment of a local and London-wide community safety index to broaden the focus of a range of agencies and communities so that they work together on improving community safety. The work done within the mayor’s office to build evidence on ‘what works’ should be widened. Resources should also follow the evidence of need and impact, even if that means resources flowing out of some boroughs.

Most importantly, London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan (and his counterparts in other devolved administrations) will need to convene, persuade and publicly challenge all of London’s leaders in the boroughs, health service, police, voluntary and private sectors, and London’s communities, to work together to deal with deep-seated social issues. What goes for community safety applies equally to skills, healthcare, housing and work. And as the RSA’s work on future prisons makes clear, prison and probation services also need to be included on the list of those collaborating.

Across the country, there is a demand for system-level insights, leadership, seamless cooperation, innovation and focus. Instead, services remain locked in organisational cultures with resourcing constraints opening gaps of provision without significantly minimising duplication of energy and resource.

Major public services are facing the same variety of challenges: how can demand be properly managed when the powers, resources and capabilities to manage it effectively are held across agencies, localities and, indeed, Whitehall departments? What challenges does the lack of geographical ‘match’ present to more integrated approaches? And how can those who depend on the services themselves be part of the process of better managing and meeting needs?

The criminal justice system faces constantly shifting demands, whether that is through our changing expectations or convictions as a society, including our laws. For example, we are seeing an increasing, and rightful, willingness of rape victims or victims of domestic violence to speak out. We are also witnessing the rapid spread of crime and disorder through the internet, encompassing fraud, harassment, child exploitation and global crime networks.

The capacity of the system to provide consistent support for victims and witnesses remains too weak. In 2015, Baroness Newlove published a report into treatment of victims in the criminal justice system. It pointed out that:

“Cases were cited where rape victims, having waited six months to go to court and who have been supported in preparing for their court visit, are then told at the last minute that the case had been adjourned whilst the defence gather more information or issues with incomplete case files are resolved. The same is also said of the general level of information and updates given by court services on the progress and delays in courts.”

Criminal justice needs a reappraisal. This is a responsibility for the Ministry of Justice, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the courts, voluntary groups and the police. In major cities, there have been calls for devolution of the criminal justice budget (covering courts, the CPS, probation and prisons) so that oversight and commissioning responsibility for end-to-end criminal justice is clear. This would allow for more co-commissioning and the joint investment needed to speed up the system. It would also facilitate more innovation of the type seen in Brooklyn.

Knowledge pooling

Extending its current work on policing in the capital, the RSA proposed a London Policing Impact Unit, housed in the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), to combine operational, academic and strategic knowledge. This could be extended to a wider focus on the criminal justice system. The Impact Unit would analyse data and learn from on-the-ground experience of ‘what works’. These lessons would then be applied in the Metropolitan Police and beyond. A representative citizens’ panel would inform its work from an ethical and community relations standpoint. These structures are very common in the NHS and could become more common in policing and criminal justice too.

More widely, we need collective impact approaches that focus on particular challenges. These would broaden the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub or Youth Offending Team approach, whereby agencies work in close cooperation. This means permanent engagement on shared issues of concern, such as domestic violence, mental health, anti-social behaviour, gang-related violence, irresponsible licensing of premises, vandalism, threats to particular communities, management of public space, drug addiction and more besides.

Mobilising the community

Collective impact approaches require continuous and ongoing collective working with others in the public, commercial and voluntary sectors. Governance structures over each initiative need to be permanent and resources pooled where necessary. Prisons and probation would have to be more closely allied with other services if these approaches were to work.

In Rotterdam, a collective impact approach has been driven by a ‘community safety index’. Whereas in the UK it is usually the police who have targets to reduce crime and increase safety, Rotterdam takes a different approach. Each district within the city has signed up to collectively bring the community together to ensure that the city has a minimum standard of safety in each district and to continuously improve the overall safety of the city. The safety index does not just comprise traditional objective measures of recorded (or surveyed) levels of crime. Two-thirds of the measures in the index are subjective, so are concerned with an individual sense of safety and security.

At the area level, this means that community safety becomes a shared endeavour. It is expected that all neighbourhoods will own their own plans — for physical, social, economic and individual safety — and work with partners. These partners are usually the municipality, the police, other services, the voluntary sector and the general public. All share the expectation of reaching minimum standards of safety in the area with regard to particular types of crime and disorder, and with the aim of targeting particular behaviours. Overall, this approach of shared goals, community collaboration, shared planning and a wide sense of ownership has resulted in an improved sense of safety in Rotterdam — beyond crime statistics alone — over the past decade or so.

Returning to Brooklyn, Red Hook has effectively pulled the city’s leadership, the academic community, the police forces and a wide range of community groups behind its cause. The result has been crime declining in areas of the city where Red Hook is active in a way it has not in adjacent areas. Fewer young men are ending up in prison, and in an environment where incarceration is racially charged, that could engender community benefits.

What the UK now requires is similarly robust, community-engaged, data- and evidence-led, system-aware innovation. To do that it will need to solder together a heavily fragmented system of professional interests, incentives and governance. Achieving that requires extraordinary leadership. Devolved government at least opens up the possibility for that leadership to emerge. Failing that, success in creating safer communities will be initiative-by-initiative and rarely at scale. In other words, it will be marginal.


Anthony Painter is Director of the RSA Action and Research Centre

Read the RSA’s report ‘Safer together: policing a global city in 2020’

This article was originally published in the RSA Journal Issue 2 2016