Another call for more evidence based criminal justice

Of all the great institutions passed down to western civilisation by the Enlightenment, none has been a greater failure than the criminal justice system.’ - John Braithwaite


Johann Kriegler, who heads up the Justice Audit (JA) for the GJG has described the JA as ‘the justice equivalent to a full medical check-up’ providing ‘a survey of all factors that contribute to the functioning of the body politic.’  Stephen Golub has sought to explain the importance of primary justice services by drawing parallels to the health sector. He writes; ‘today’s heavy emphasis on judges, lawyers and courts is analogous to what the public health field would look like if it mainly focused on urban hospitals and the doctors staffing them, and largely ignored nurses, other health workers, maternal and public education, other preventive approaches, rural and community health issues, building community capacities, and nonmedical strategies (such as improving sanitation and water supply).' [1]

In a recently published book, John Braithwaite of the Australian National University takes the parallel one step further. The book, ‘Civilising Criminal Justice: An International Restorative Agenda for Penal Reform’ is a damning account of how criminal justice is administered, in a wide range of jurisdictions, but it also offers some very helpful suggestions for reform. [2] Having noted that ‘of all the great institutions passed down to western civilisation by the Enlightenment, none has been a greater failure than the criminal justice system’, Braithwaite goes on to reflect a little around what has led to this failure.

As the book shows, almost anywhere you go in the world today, ‘encounters with the courts and prisons not only accelerate rather than decelerate criminal careers in a large proportion of cases, they also usually leave the victims and affected family members feeling more damaged as result of either the process or the outcome of the trial, or both.’ This paradox was once true for health services too; ‘as recently as a century ago, an encounter with a doctor was just as likely to leave a patient worse as better off.’ But medicine evolved; 'medicine has been evidence based in a way that law has not.' Braithwaite notes how ‘the practice of medicine of a century ago would be unrecognisable to a doctor training in the 21st century.’ But as Fred McElrea shows, in a different chapter of the same book, the fundamentals of the criminal justice system remain largely intact; it ‘has been less adaptive than other institutions, less responsive to the transformations of the environment in which it operates.’

However, if we want more adaptive criminal justice institutions, we first need to know what they must adapt to. If we want a more responsive criminal justice system, we must establish exactly what it is supposed to respond to. This is precisely the dilemma that the JA seeks to address. It is designed to help policymakers, civil society and the public understand what is really happening in police stations, in courts, and in prisons. But the JA also looks at what is happening in what Eleanor Roosevelt referred to as the ‘small places, close to home’ - in the neighbourhood, the school, and on the streets. This is much akin to how health research would, not just examine what is going on in hospitals and clinics, but also consider relevant socio-economic factors such as sanitation, hygiene and diet in order to figure out how best to improve public health.

Thanks to public health research, combined with the political will to use that science to deliver better healthcare, most people in the world today enjoy far better health services than they did fifty years ago. [3] Why can justice services not evolve in the same way? 



[1] Stephen Golub, ‘Beyond Rule of Law Orthodoxy: the legal empowerment alternative’, Rule of Law series no 41 October 2003. Democracy and Rule of Law Project. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

[2] Civilising Criminal Justice: An International Restorative Agenda for Penal Reform, edited by David Cornwell, John Blad and Martin Wright - with a Foreword by John Braithwaite, Waterside Press (2013) 

[3] One of the best illustrations of this trend is the ‘Wealth & Health of Nations’ presentation available at