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Innovation or stagnation? The challenges in our justice system

BLOGS | 28th October 2020

As part of our Talking Justice blog series, James Maybee – Principal Officer (Criminal Justice), The Highland Council – discusses adaptability, resilience and David Bowie. 

Reflecting on the challenges in our justice system my first thought was about our readiness as a criminal justice system to change. This seems to me to be the first step crucial step in the process.

I found myself singing “Ch… ch… ch… Changes…”, David Bowie’s song! But that is probably more about artistic change. As synchronicity would have it, I came across two quotes that have more resonance in the context of change at this particular moment in time, faced as we are by a coronavirus which has literally upended our world in a way none of us could ever have imagined.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, or plain Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, faqih, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic (I had to look him up) wrote

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

The other quote is probably more well know and was written by the late James Baldwin, a celebrated American writer and activist. He said,

“Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In the headlong rush to reinvent the criminal justice system and avoid returning to business as usual, we would do well to consider the wise words of Rumi and James Baldwin.

That the criminal justice system is complex and multi-faceted is a given, but the map of the Scottish Justice System developed by Community Justice Scotland (CJS) is an eye-opener. Even as a seasoned justice professional, I was struck by how overwhelming it is.

How easy to get lost in such a maze; a veritable game of snakes and ladders where too often progress is based on chance with hopes often crushed on a roll of the justice dice.

If we truly wish to change the system for the better, I suggest we need to change ourselves and, by inference, our own part of the system first and foremost. We are not short of ideas – the recent Justice System Recovery paper from CJS is stuffed full of them. But are we collectively ready and willing to cede power, control and the hard-fought victories in our own respective parts of the system to focus on what might be best for the individuals entering the truly terrifying journey mapped out in Navigating the Criminal Justice System?

Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian renaissance diplomat, may have something of a mixed reputation, but he was surely right when he wrote in 1513, “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out… than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour.”

Our Talking Justice blog series brings together reflections from across our society. We are committed to changing the conversation about justice, increasing understanding and support for what will make Scotland better for all of us. To that end, we have have created a resource that maps out the Scottish justice system. This has been developed into an interactive digital tool: Navigating Scotland’s Justice System.