Cross-examination: A conversation about life and the justice system with Justin Russell, HM Chief Inspector of Probation
In the latest in our series of interviews with stakeholders in the criminal justice system (CJS), we speak with Justin Russell, His Majesty’s (HM) Chief Inspector of Probation.
1. What’s your involvement with the justice system?
I have been the Chief Inspector of Probation since June 2019.
Our core role is to shine a light on the quality of local probation, and youth justice services to help them improve.
We also carry out national thematic reviews on topics such as drugs, mental health, accommodation, and racial equality – accompanied by effective practice guides, complete with video content.
And we publish research on effective practice, which has had a very positive response. It allows us to share positive messages about the work probation teams do.
2. What was your first job in justice and what originally motivated you to work in the justice system?
I started as a social research officer in the Home Office. To be honest, joining the Home Office and getting involved in the CJS was an accident. I had done a master’s degree in race/social policy, and my real interest was in race relations.
While there, I carried out research into support for victims and the Safer Cities programme, and the research unit featured some impressive criminologists. However, there are constraints on the influence of research: two to three-year studies are of limited use for ministers in a hurry, and there is such a high bar for proving outcomes that it is sometimes easier to show things don’t work.
The turning point for me was a Harkness Fellowship to the US in 1994, where I looked at drug programmes for offenders. The ‘three strikes’ policy filled jails and prompted creative policy ideas like drug courts. It made me think about the difference governments can make by thinking bigger.
Back in the UK, I worked as an expert adviser on crime for the Labour Party, did a stint at the Audit Commission developing best value reviews, and then returned to the Home Office as Jack Straw’s (then Home Secretary) special adviser. After that I moved to the No.10 Policy Unit, which was a great experience because the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, knew all about the CJS (having been Shadow Home Secretary) and was interested in reform, and I was surrounded by smart colleagues.
3. What gives you the most cause for optimism in your current role?
There are lots of problems at the moment, particularly court backlogs and the broader challenge of recovering from the impact of the pandemic. But three things give me cause for optimism:
- The work of youth offending teams is impressive: inspection scores have improved, they offer a positive model of local multi-agency partnerships, and manageable caseloads allow staff time to focus on risk and needs
- I see lots of committed staff on probation. They are passionate about doing the right thing, even if they are working under challenging constraints
- I have a great team in the Inspectorate.
4. If you could fix one problem in the justice system, what would it be and why?
I would focus on the interface between health and the CJS and sort out mental health and drugs.
We must ensure that people with a drug problem get the treatment they need. Something like half of acquisitive crime is committed by people dependent on Class A drugs, so there will be multiple benefits.
Frustratingly, there was a big investment in drug treatment ten years ago, but much of that infrastructure has disappeared. Dame Carol Black’s review did a great job in getting the issues back on the agenda, and the Government’s new strategy was a good start, but there is much to do to ensure sustained delivery at a local level. It will require cross-government ministerial leadership to bring things together.
The mental health challenges are similar. We are now seeing investment in prison healthcare, with good collaboration between HM Prison and Probation Service and NHS England, but too often, people disappear from treatment on release.
5. Who or what has had the biggest influence on you, and in what way?
Working for Tony Blair for four years meant that his philosophy on crime (“tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime”) inevitably had a big influence on me and led to important and influential legislation like the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003, with the government pursuing an agenda that balanced risk and control with needs and problem-solving.
6. What’s the best advice you’ve ever had?
I go back to Stephen Covey’s book (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and his advice to be proactive in taking control of your own happiness and satisfaction.
He also introduced me to the idea of your ‘circle of influence’, and the importance of focusing where you can have impact and not fretting about the things you have no control over. There’s a lesson there for ministers!
7. What would you like to look back on and say you’ve achieved in relation to justice?I would like to say I have contributed to bringing in fresh thinking on offenders and victims.
I am proud of the progress on treatment of offenders that was made in the 2000s, with initiatives like the Drug Treatment and Testing Order and the Drug Intervention Programme (DIP).
When I was head of the Violent Crime Unit in the Home Office, we introduced some innovative approaches to protecting victims, like the Domestic Violence Protection Order, drawing on lessons from an Austrian model. I am sure that has saved lives. And we were able to develop the first cross-government strategy for reducing violence against women and girls. I am really proud of that.