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Why is our justice system so reluctant to embrace digital?
New blog series on British digital innovators in the justice sector.

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Digital reluctance

We don’t talk about the digital revolution any more because almost everything we do in the modern world is digital from waking up and verbally switching on our smart speaker to ordering the lights to go off when we go to bed. Everywhere we go, digital is mainstream – except, that is,  in our criminal justice system. How many reports have you read in the last 10 years about how our prisons and prisoners need to be part of the digital economy? And how much real progress has there been outside of a couple of brand new prisons like HMPs Berwyn and Five Wells?

I used to share stories about digital innovation regularly on this blog but recently there’s been much less to write about because we seems to be making such little progress in this area.

It’s clear that the lack of progress isn’t down to a lack of innovation on the part of British companies working in the justice sector, some of whom I intend to profile in this short blog series over the next few weeks. What most of them have in common is that they have developed effective products & solutions but have been more successful in selling them to justice systems in other countries, despite starting off by promoting them here in the UK.

Risk aversion

Our prisons and probation services are increasingly branded as risk averse, something which is reflected in so many practice and policy areas, including the next few examples off the top of my head:

  • The (apparently inexorable) rise in the numbers of people recalled to prison.
  • The political decisions to make fewer and fewer people eligible for parole or even allow them to prepare properly for release in open conditions.
  • The centralisation of decision-making power in the Probation Service, leaving local leaders little autonomy or room for innovation.
  • The unwillingness to embrace the potential of Home Detention Curfews to make our prisons a little less overcrowded or to release people on temporary licence to maximise their chances of finding employment before they are released.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. This general tendence to risk aversion seems to apply even more to the sector’s attitude to technology. I want to make it clear that this reluctance appears to be a cultural phenomenon rather than something that can be attributed to the individuals in charge.

Someone must have moved heaven and earth the best part of 15 years ago to get the Virtual Campus project off the ground in our prisons. VC has done a lot of great work but I’ve yet to visit a prison where those VC classrooms are routinely fully used morning and afternoon – let alone on the weekend. We have piloted umpteen projects which have proved that digital can work in prisons and probation, yet hardly any of these are the norm.

Not only are people in prisons and on probation and the staff who work with them missing out, but our under-funded criminal justice system is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds every year while we are crying out for investment in staff and buildings. Here’s just one example. We have a series of National Audit Office reports telling us just how many hundreds of millions of pounds the MoJ has wasted on electronic tagging. Personally, I haven’t a clue why we continue to invest in this outdated technology when we have secure video and image location and audio recognition software which can be used on any phone. We could save (literally) billions of pounds over the next decade while the people being tracked could be using phones rather than wearing ankle tags which invite (even more) stigma and make employment even harder to find.

The blog series

Now that I have expressed these frustrations (in rather too much detail, I fear), what is the point of the blog series? Well, each week I will profile a well-known British company with proven digital expertise in the criminal justice sector. I’ll give a brief overview of their products and where they work in the world, describe the potential of those products and share some of their views on why other jurisdictions seem happier to embrace and purchase their expertise. 

I’ll be starting the series with Socrates Software but including Breaking Free Online, Unilink, Red Snapper Media Interventions and maybe one or two more. I hope you find their innovations as interesting and useful as I do.


Thanks to Annie Spratt for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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