I pursued a career in penal policy after completing the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice in 2006. My dissertation was on ‘Broken Windows’ theory (and its influence on the then-Labour government’s ‘Respect Agenda’) – the idea that relatively minor social disorder (such as litter and buildings in a state of disrepair) and small infringements of the law that go unchecked (begging, not paying transport fares) lead directly to serious crime. Broken Windows became popular in the 1980s after its authors, James Q Wilson and George Kelling, put forward their hypothesis in a mainstream journal. Despite a lack of evidence, its ‘zero tolerance’ approach quickly captured the imagination of US city mayors, police chiefs and Presidents, who based swaths of penal policy on the idea that ‘getting tough’ on minor crime would solve more serious problems.
I was lucky that Professor Bernard Harcourt was visiting Oxford that year. He had just published his book ‘Illusion of Order: The false promise of Broken Windows’, which asserted that it wasn’t evidence that made Broken Windows so potent – rather, it was a simple story that made sense intuitively with people in power and (perhaps most importantly) voters. It worked for them politically – whether it worked in reality mattered to them a whole lot less.
After Oxford I became a junior researcher in a parliamentary office working for an MP on criminal justice issues, a worthwhile if rather dispiriting experience, exemplified by the time I was tasked to ask a senior politician for his view on how to brand community sentences in his party election manifesto chapter on criminal justice. I found him having lunch in a Portcullis House café with a tabloid journalist. When I interrupted to ask whether he preferred ‘Community Punishment Sentences’ or ‘Community Punishment Orders’, the journalist interjected: “Who cares, as long as it has ‘punishment’ in there”. The politician wholeheartedly agreed.
From there I moved into the charity sector, initially writing reports on sentencing and policing for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and the Howard League, before moving to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. While there, a senior civil servant, reacting to a report I’d written on prison mental health, advised me: “Don’t just come to us to celebrate the problems – we know them already. Come with solutions”. This single remark probably informed my approach to campaigning more than any other.
While at the Sainsbury Centre I became involved in a major review of mental health and criminal justice led by Lord Keith Bradley, who had been asked by the government to undertake a root and branch review of the system. For one research project I spent two weeks interviewing prisoners on the Isle of Wight serving a new sentence called Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) about their mental health (‘In the Dark’). IPPs were so new that prison computer systems weren’t able to cope with the idea of an ‘indeterminate sentence’, and when prisoners arrived after being sentenced at court, the tariff label on their cell door bleakly read ‘99 years’.
In 2010 I moved to the Barrow Cadbury Trust, an independent social justice foundation. Since 2012 I have been its criminal justice programme manager, overseeing a portfolio of research and policy grants, undertaking in-house projects and campaigns, and working in partnership with others to ‘speak truth to power’ to politicians, service providers and the media. The emphasis of the programme is shining a light on dark corners of the system, which in recent years has included work on deaths of young people in custody, sex in prisons, Islamophobia, and brain injury. Race and gender justice are integral to all of the Trust’s work and last year I had close involvement with David Lammy’s review of race and crime.
A highlight was giving oral evidence to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee in 2016 in the final session of its inquiry on young adult offenders. For a decade the Trust has convened the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A), a campaign for a more effective approach to 18-25 year olds throughout the criminal justice system, which has produced more than 50 reports relating to each stage of the criminal justice pathway, from point of arrest to resettlement from prison. T2A has contributed to significant changes in policy and practice centred on ‘taking account of maturity’ as well as age in decisions about young people after they turn 18. The Justice Committee concluded there is ‘overwhelming evidence’ for a distinct approach to young adults, and referenced T2A’s work more than 100 times in its final report. Last year, the government accepted the premise and I am now involved in implementing our evidence in mainstream services – including work with Police and Crime Commissioners and the establishment of young adult criminal courts.
Over the years I’ve learned that influencing policy-makers is only part of the task. Structural change is what really counts, and this requires both time and timeliness – sustained effort, robust evidence, a good story and a clutch of solutions, in combination with being in the right place at the right moment.
Max Rutherford completed the MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice in 2006.