Salzburg Global Initiative Takes New Look At The Purpose Of Criminal Justice And Its Reform




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Jun 30, 2021
by Charles Ehrlich
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Salzburg Global Initiative Takes New Look At The Purpose Of Criminal Justice And Its Reform

Program Director Charles Ehrlich reflects on work undertaken so far in Global Innovations on Youth Violence, Safety, and Justice Initiative, which began in January 2021 Illustration by VectorMine from Shutterstock

In January 2021, Salzburg Global Seminar launched a new multi-year initiative: Global Innovations on Youth Violence, Safety, and Justice. We received support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and the David Rockefeller Fund. Sixty-seven Fellows from 19 countries have taken part so far in regular interconnected working groups (currently held virtually due to the pandemic). In the initial phase, we seek to identify specific points of interest, challenges, and questions that cut across the discussions, which have allowed us to focus on some big, potentially transformative ideas that could help shape the future of criminal justice systems in the coming years.

We started with the purpose of the criminal justice system, understanding that the power a government exerts over citizens must be legitimated. Therefore, we set out to explore examples of where culture has changed from heavy policing and incarceration systems – the custody, control, and suppression models – toward a focus on human dignity. This approach has included top-down system overhauls, as well as bottom-up community-level interventions. We have looked at the European human rights paradigm in more depth beyond what a “rich country” approach might be to what could be transferable to other systems. For example, we have examined the introduction of restorative justice in former communist countries that previously had punitive systems. 

Yet, we realized that these reforms do not per se address the root causes of crime and violence.  A “public health” approach to justice involves broader factors outside the traditional justice system. These factors include community safety and well-being involving collaboration across stakeholders, root cause/risk factor analysis, and investments into prevention through health care, housing infrastructure, education, poverty alleviation, addressing childhood trauma, and lack of safety in schools. 

Young adulthood is a period of vulnerability for psychological development and encounters with authority. There is a need for proactive engagement to address the estrangement of youths from historically disadvantaged groups. Some activities can be decriminalized or de-securitized (in contexts ranging from drug addiction to violent extremism) to focus instead on life skills and resilience through public initiatives derived from family, religion, and community organizations.

Exposure to violence (especially domestic violence) at a young age is the single most predictive, but not determinative, risk factor. Schools themselves can become the cornerstones of safe communities through conversion into after-school and weekend spaces, as pioneered in Latin America. Social and emotional learning can place well-being, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills at the core, proven to contribute to more inclusive, dynamic, and productive schools, communities, and workplaces, particularly in societies prone to extreme poverty and violence. 

Modeling the cost of the status quo is a powerful advocacy tool to fund preventative measures. Unfortunately, having a model does not guarantee policy action. It is challenging to evaluate programs and track real savings to public budgets, especially long-term, across systems that employ different data sets. Crime, arrest, conviction, recidivism rates, and cost are all popular metrics. Still, all fail to capture deeper desired outcomes: respectful treatment of victims and offenders, repairing harm, and rebuilding communities. Developmental psychology and neuroscience research on young adult males has successfully been used to change the narrative. Social trust could be a useful new metric as it positively correlates with resilience to crises and predicts crime rates well. 

But lack of accurate and consistent data, which often do not enter the policy debate even when collected, can lead to an erosion of public trust. Moreover, in some cases, particularly in transitional countries, these measurements are applied mechanically to evaluate judges and prosecutors, independently of what might otherwise be seen as considerations of “justice,” giving rise to perceived, if not actual, corruption.  Alternative bottom-up approaches allow hyperlocal communities to define their own indicators, but these can be expensive and difficult to collect and are locally specific by design. 

We would thus wish to develop a consistent data-based message that can be translated for policymakers and communicated to and understood by the public. But how to present policy to persuade public institutions and communities about the need for criminal justice transformation and what it means?

Active acceptance of reform is problematic if large parts of the population feel they are not consulted.  Buy-in must come both from marginalized communities that are often most directly impacted and skeptical of top-down attempts and wider publics wary of reforms, including citizens who may fear that reform would undermine law and order.

Powerful communications tactics include aligning with the larger social, national, or regional picture; emphasizing the practical value of reforms in terms of cost savings and increased security; building coalitions across society based on shared interests; and accepting and supporting compromise.  Reforms should be based on data but communicated via emotional, personal connections. Skeptics of criminal justice reform can be convinced with the right messages and authentic messengers.

The ultimate question for citizens is what society they wish to live in and what they expect from their relationship to authority. Where the justice system has not provided safety and security, then incremental reform may not be sufficient. We have had a chance to explore cases where the opportunity presented itself to create entirely new justice systems completely and how this has been presented to the general population, for example, in countries of the former Soviet Union or jurisdictions emerging from civil conflicts. Sharing experiences across borders opens examples of systemic changes that might be adapted in other contexts.

The working groups have provided rich discussions so far taking place off-the-record in small (but diverse) groups to promote open exchange. We will highlight the concrete ideas and stories, and in particular opportunities for further action on the ground and prepare those for publication and public-facing webinars later in 2021. We welcome policy leaders and innovators to get in touch and join us as we expand the initiative’s reach and impact in the coming years.

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