Reflecting on ‘Conviction: violence, culture and a shared public service agenda’ by John Carnochan

CYCJ’s Director, Claire Lightowler, reflects on ‘Conviction: violence, culture and a shared public service agenda’ in the latest Raising Youth Justice blog post, and shares her thoughts on what this book by John Carnochan can teach us about supporting change across youth justice.

It’s rare for me to read a book straight through in one sitting, but as soon as this one dropped through my letterbox on Saturday morning and I’d fought with the packaging to get my hands on it, I was hooked. Perhaps it’s because you rarely get the opportunity to follow an insider’s view of stimulating and supporting real change about something that really does matter. It’s a story that feels personal to me given that its chronology mirrors my working life so far, and in small ways I’ve regularly crossed paths with the events being described. It also allowed me to fill in some blanks about what has been going on, and particularly why at different points in time certain ideas, programmes, academics or phrases seemed to be mentioned everywhere I looked.  Conviction is a powerful tale of supporting significant and (hopefully) lasting change, with the events documented here likely to have contributed in some way to a 57% reduction in murders in Scotland between 2004/5 and 2013/14 (compared to a 32% reduction in England and Wales over the same period), as well as significant reductions in attempted murders and assaults.

This story begins in the early 2000s with Carnochan describing a fire-fighting culture where the police focused on responding to violence once it was committed. He documents the futility of this approach; the painful and harrowing reality of multi-generational gang membership; families and communities mourning young lives lost through bereavement and the impact of associated jail terms; and the all-pervading belief by young people, communities and professionals that this was just the way it was.

In identifying the need for a different approach the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) made, at least, two brilliant initial decisions, which now seem so obvious that they could easily be missed. Firstly, they focussed on reducing violence, not on violent crime, thus ensuring a broad preventative approach and making violence reduction everyone’s business – not just those involved in crime (well, perhaps everyone, except the nameless Director of Education who failed to see that violence reduction had anything to do with schools). Secondly, they focused solely on violence reduction, and thus were not side-tracked into other objectives nor sought other measures of success (though undoubtedly by reducing violence other benefits were realised). They therefore ensured right from the start they had a clear, unshakeable and realistic focus on the fact that violence is preventable, not inevitable, and they sought to focus on reducing, not eliminating it.

The initial staff at the VRU included an analyst, who is now the director, Karyn McCluskey. Her skill set, combined with the wider police modus operandi of gathering and assessing evidence, helped ensure the VRU took its time to gather intelligence and evidence about reducing violence from a range of sources, and then spend time thinking about what they found before taking decisions about what actions should be taken. So often people – including myself sometimes – are so keen to improve a situation we forget to take time to really look into the issue. This can be compounded by mistakenly thinking that we have looked into the issue, when in reality we have only talked to people just like ourselves, from similar organisations, professions and countries.

What is so noticeable, in the case of the VRU, is that they talked to just about everyone – the families of people affected by violence, professionals from public health, economics, criminology and gang members. They visited programmes and projects in many other counties, always taking with them an open mind, given their starting position was that we need to learn from everywhere, because we don’t know how best to improve: what we do know is that what we’re doing isn’t working.

The evidence gathering led them to eventually focus on three levels of prevention (well before prevention became the buzz word of the Scottish public services as it is today):

1. Primary prevention – seeking to prevent the onset of violence so that violence is prevented from developing (including through attitudinal change, early years investment)

2. Secondary prevention – halt the progression of violence once established (through early detection, early diagnosis, prompt effective treatment)

3. Tertiary prevention – the rehabilitation of people with an established violent behaviour or who have been affected as a victim

(p.95)

Carnochan explains how they went about convincing people of the value of this approach –seeking and finding support from a range of sometimes unexpected quarters and always looking to engage with everyone. One initiative was to invite the media and all Scottish politicians to visit the VRU, not shying away from potential negative attention this new approach was likely to generate. The book also documents how the VRU combined thorough analysis of data with real stories, often supporting people to share their stories themselves. Connecting with, and referring, to real life experiences helped explain how things were the way they were, but also how they could have been quite different, and why this really matters.

None of this has been easy, a fact Carnochan gently refers to, but somewhat skims over in this account. The sense he leaves though is of a team who were willing to challenge and be challenged. I particularly enjoyed the description of the author’s queasiness about the Unit organising an event, adopted from America, which sought to bring together gang members with members of their communities and professionals in a highly emotional, almost evangelical, way. The event focused on explaining to those currently in gangs that everyone had had enough of the violence, that they all really cared about them and wanted to support them to change, but if they didn’t they would feel the full force of the law. What I especially enjoyed about this account was in part the respect, a key theme throughout the book, that Carnochan showed his team. He was not convinced that such a highly emotionally charged event would actually work, but was happy to go along with it as others in the team were.  In the event, of course, they were right and this also offers up a useful reminder, and another recurring theme in the book: namely, that no one person has all the answers. No one is always right, for all people, in all circumstances. We all need to listen and learn from others, and show a bit more respect for everyone else’s perspectives.

There has been a lot of rubbish written about cultural change and leadership, where vague lessons and simplistic clichés are touted, but which prove difficult to understand, let alone see just how they apply to what you do. This book is quite different. I finished it reflecting on the effectiveness of my own efforts to support change across youth justice.  The VRU and all those involved have proved that it is possible to make a difference by focusing energy on a specific issue,  then taking time to properly understand that issue,  seeking out promising developments and ideas from other countries, professionals and disciplines, supporting people to better understand the issue and working with everyone to actually improve things.

With the Scottish Government’s youth justice strategy due for publication this week, reading this truly inspiring book has encouraged me personally to re-examine just where we, at CYCJ, should be focusing our attention; and in light of that, just what we need to know about, and who do we need to speak to before finally deciding just what do we need to do. It’s also a timely and helpful reminder of what’s possible, what’s really at stake and what people with real conviction can actually achieve.


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