One of the things about being an activist or campaigner and ‘having a cause’ that motivates you and, in many ways, shapes your life, is that you can easily be tagged as a complainer or moaner and, in some cases, the more you moan the less you get heard. As one good friend once told me, a good rant makes nothing better except your own sense of self-righteousness. I think that is probably right, although I do like a bit of passion thrown in with all the measured debate and pragmatism, otherwise things can get very dull, don’t you think? Anyway, I have had cause over these past couple of weeks to rein back on my usual broken record mantra of complaints about unjust justice, inefficient funding models, waste of public finance and marginalising of the third sector, stopped in my tracks by the latest indicators from the Scottish Government that the long talked about and sorely needed changes to the justice approach in Scotland may actually be achievable. Hold the page, shut the door; what? Yes, after years of McLeish and Angiollini and inexorably rising prison numbers and endless haggling about where is all the money going, there is at last a clear statement from the Government that the progressive justice system Scotland needs and deserves may be more than just a pipe dream.
Recent consultation documents and policy statements from all sides of the justice world show an agreement that significant root and branch change is needed, because if we continue to do what we have always done we will continue to get what we have always had. Bad news for the activists, there’s little there to complain about. Instead, we have to become active partners, helping to build the new thing and making sure it works well for everyone, be they those we have judged as offending, those impacted negatively by that offending and even those working in the justice industry. When you get a chance to see what you have been campaigning for become a reality, you cannot afford to sit back and congratulate yourself by patting yourself on the back and saying my work here is done because it isn’t.
Getting policy makers and legislators on side is just part of the battle and the big challenge is still to be faced – how do you change an entire cultural mindset brought up on cops and robbers, good versus evil and a historical social normalisation of vengeance and punishment which is largely unchanged since Roman times? Just look at some of the responses to the progressive justice consultations and you will instantly see that there remain a significant number of people who believe in deterrence, harsh punishment and simplistic solutions as the only way to maintain law and order. Interestingly, I have always found that such views rarely get expressed should someone they know get charged, so I think there is often an othering process at work here suggesting a need to express hate against something you do not feel would ever actually apply to you. As the mantra goes, those who obey the law have nothing to fear from it, but of course that is a point of view which totally discounts the fact that situations, circumstances and opportunity are neither consistent nor based upon fairness. We all start from a different place and while compliance with the system works for some it patently does not for others, so no justice system based solely on rules and regulations without an understanding of the complexities of human experience and behaviour can ever be seen as fair. This is a hard message to get across to some I know, but the progressive ideas we are seeing emerging look like they are finally being driven not by the negative ‘if it offends then cut it off’ approach, but by a sense of humanity and recognition that our communities will be stronger and safer when we address the causes of crime and stop creating a criminal class.
As we go into this Christmas season and remember the themes of peace on earth and goodwill to all, I am happy with an early Christmas present from our policy makers that shows goodwill to all people and a willingness to invest in even those who pose challenges to our comfort. I hope the New Year sees everyone behind this and pushing for all they are worth so that we get the modern justice system which we have looked for for so long. Have a good break.