Dr Mary Rogan: We have a rare window to reform justice system
POLICING is rarely out of the headlines in Ireland at present. In the day-today analysis of reports of misclassification of crimes and responses to whistleblowers, it is easy to miss the changes in the broader landscape of criminal justice policymaking against which these events are taking place.
The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was set up last year with the formidable task of engaging in an all-encompassing review of how policing operates in Ireland, and is to report by September of this year. Its establishment follows an almost incessant outpouring of concerns about aspects of police practice here and its work is happening at a time of unprecedented reflection on how criminal justice policy is formed in Ireland.
Policing and the criminal justice system generally need a policymaking framework which is robust, resilient and which allows for best practice to be discerned and to be implemented. That policymaking environment is shaped largely by the Department of Justice and Equality and its history.
During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Ireland was in receipt of some funds under the Marshall Plan – an American initiative to aid Western Europe. Each Government department was obliged to give an annual account of its activities. The Department of Justice, as with the other departments, produced its report each year. Year on year, the Department of Justice, then a remarkably small section of Government, and a deeply cautious place, reported back in the following terms: “No activities worthy of note.”
In 1952, the then-secretary of the Department of Justice wrote: “Our activities, important though they may be, have no popular appeal. All things considered, I think the less said about our plans the better.”
The remit of the Department of Justice and Equality has undoubtedly been transformed since those days. A profoundly influential factor on the ethos and approach of the Department has been the Troubles. This influence goes right back to our Independence, but intensified in the 1970s. The Department of Justice became a very insular place, wary of outsiders, reluctant to engage with interested observers, viewing all through the lenses of suspicion and subversion. This has led to a certain dominance of policing concerns and prioritisation of the relationship between policing and the department, as well as a longstanding insularity in its outlook.
Another salient feature of the policymaking landscape is a lack of engagement with data and research. We have also often been reactive rather than proactive in responding to the challenges we face in criminal justice.
We expanded our prison capacity dramatically, for example, during the 1990s without doing any projections or modelling about what the required capacity was, or what the drivers behind that increasing prison population might be. Not ascribing importance to accurate data may go some way to explaining the concerns we are seeing now about how crimes are being classified and recorded.
Criminal justice policymaking, within which our approach to policing has been shaped, has been characterised by three key features over the last five decades: insularity and a security mindset; a reactive rather than proactive style of planning; and a less than optimal use of research and evidence. These tenets are, however, coming under increasing, and overdue, scrutiny and pressure in the recent past.
One of the early examples of a change came in the form of a review group set up to examine penal policy in 2012.
The Penal Policy Review Group made 43 separate recommendations about the treatment of victims of crime, the need to understand crime as a social policy and health issue, as well as a justice one, and other areas. Perhaps most crucially, the group called for a “new penal policy”.
The Review Group strongly encouraged the creation of a better policymaking landscape. It noted that “the experience of many jurisdictions is that penal policy is best created in an environment which prioritises inter-agency cooperation, is based on evidence, involves appropriate deliberation and the input of experts, which is conducted in a responsible and measured way, and which keeps the long-term purposes of the criminal justice system in its focus”.
This exhortation applies to policing and its place within the broader criminal justice network.
That call by the Penal Policy Review Group represents a new and different thinking about how criminal justice policymaking should work here.
It is part of a network of related calls – from the Toland Report on the Department of Justice and Equality which found both a widening remit, and a culture of secrecy to have permeated out of security and policing issues into other aspects of the department’s work – to the reviews of policing conducted by the Garda Inspectorate, to the development of the first ever strategic plans for the Prison and Probation Services.
All of these developments indicate that we are in a rare policy window, which allows us to step back from the rush and pressure of the urgent, the now, and to ask what it is we want from our criminal justice policy, and what structures do we need to get it.
There is a lot in what these reports tell us that we are not happy to see, and which give us cause for profound concern.
What is encouraging, however, is a new desire to take a long-term and strategic look at our criminal justice policy and practice, more public consultation, and an effort to improve how we collect and use data and evidence. There is also a turn towards creating proper structures for the implementation of recommended changes.
An Implementation Oversight Group, which I chair, was set up in 2014 and reports to the Justice and Equality Minister every six months on the progress in implementing the Penal Policy Review Group. Its reports are made public.
We have also recently seen the establishment of a cross-sectoral group to consider recommendations on how to tackle child abuse, which reports to the Cabinet quarterly.
It is only through tackling the way in which policy is made that will we see real change in how the criminal justice system operates in Ireland. We need to see the better use of good quality data and information to inform what we do, more working between agencies and with outside bodies, and more openness to outside scrutiny. Perhaps, most importantly, we need to ensure that this period of change results in concrete reforms, which requires robust and publicly accountable implementation plans. The days of dusty reports on lonely departmental shelves must come to an end.