Scotland Communities and society

In Conversation With… Karyn McCluskey, Community Justice Scotland

Image via Karen McCluskey

LGiU Scotland’s Kim Fellows speaks to Karyn McCluskey, Chief Executive of Community Justice Scotland, all about prevention, justice and resilience.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about Community Justice Scotland?

I am the chief executive of Community Justice Scotland. I had a bit of a strange background getting here, I trained as a nurse and then a forensic psychologist and I was then in the police for 23 years where I set up the Violence Reduction Unit. I took up the post of CE of Community Justice Scotland about 3 years ago.

What is your main aim for Community Justice Scotland (CJS)?

CJS has evolved. The legislation was set up in 2016 and it talked about reducing reoffending, so that covers all the services that are out there including those delivered by local authorities. Services that help people to better their wellbeing and help them reduce their offending – which covers housing, addiction, mental health, employment support and all the services that people might instantly recognise. I would probably like to articulate it more in terms of prevention. I talk about preventing victims because if we are successful, then we should see victimisation rates in Scotland go right down.

I suppose that’s a little bit of a change of perspective because I talk about us as a prevention agency, so preventing offending, not for the second and third time, because that’s reoffending, but for the first time. The thing that I really love about Scotland is that we’ve really embraced prevention. If you look at the early years movement, that’s huge. I love the stuff that’s happening in our schools, in local authorities about reducing exclusion, about transforming the lives of some of our kids by keeping them in school and giving them hope and aspiration. In fact it’s not just their aspiration, it’s the aspiration of teachers saying that these kids can do whatever they want to do. I think that’s quite lovely. So I think even in the world that I’m in, prevention is so much better than the cure.

That’s easy to say it but it’s a tough agenda to deliver.

It is, and in some ways you have to fix this whilst it’s moving. You have to address the problems of people who are actually in the justice system right now.  And there’s a top end, so let’s not hit the target and miss the point here – there are a group of people who need to be in prison, for all of our safety, because they are dangerous and the harm that they have caused is extraordinary. I am dealing with another group of people who are often incredibly traumatised, who come from chaotic backgrounds, who’ve grown up with drugs in the house, parental imprisonment, neglect, abuse and the trajectory of the justice system is very predictable for many of those people. And that’s pretty catastrophic for us. They’re not able to live their lives to the full potential. They don’t get to have a great family life, see their kids grow up and everything else and it’s such a waste of human potential.

So you have to fix it whilst it’s moving. You have to deal with the issues as they present now and for us that means that we’ve got to make sure that our services in the community are well resourced, that we understand the need of the people who are coming towards us and try and meet that need, in light of various tightened resource pressures. At the same time we also need to keep our eye on the prevention bit. How is it we spot the kids who are at risk? For those people, we need to try and change their outcome for the better and not for worse, because that will make us by far a safer country.

I think it would help our readers to hear how you connect to big societal issues for example homelessness and drug deaths.

Community justice is a Trojan horse. We talk about justice but actually what is really important are the things that help people not offend, for example having a safe home. And I mean a home and not just a place to stay. I’ve always felt as a public servant that the core of what I want to do is to serve other people. There is a myriad of issues when you try and help to support people. Homelessness is one that I’m particularly passionate about and I’ve volunteered with the Simon Community for the last 7 years. There is an opportunity to give someone a place where they feel safe and valued, a place they can lock the door at night and perhaps feel the safest that they’ve ever done because their childhood hasn’t been safe. For me this is one of the most important things in peoples lives. I used to talk about the Housing First model way before it was coming in, and about the opportunity of giving people housing. I also used to talk about universal basic income and people would say to me, “nice idea, this sounds really expensive though.” I said “you want to know what’s expensive? Try and do what we’re doing right now, that’s really expensive.” If you look at how much money we’re spending now, it is extraordinary. And I really don’t think the public know the true picture.

By way of illustrating the point, I looked after one gentleman in Glasgow, who had been transferred to the hospital 400 times by ambulance in the last year from the city centre. 400 times by ambulance. How much do we think that’s costing? And then he goes in for a short-term prison sentence. And comes right back out again to be picked up by the police constantly. We never think about that so we’re quite happy to deal with the chaos – we’re great in crisis management. The actual preventative side is much more complicated and requires great problem solving by all the people out there in local government – and they are great problem solvers given the chance. So you need to do something that is difficult, where you’re allowed to take a deep breath and think, right, how do we solve this, as opposed to just dealing with a crisis.

I think our readers will understand that challenge to think long term and get to prevention. To close, what would be your one or two key messages for local government?

Dig deep. We’re all going to need huge resilience to get through the next decade. We still have people who are dying alone of drug addiction, who are dying homeless on the street, and I don’t think that’s what any of us want to see in 21st century Scotland. I know it’s really difficult out there, and we get asked to take on huge levels of challenge. I’m going to need to find some resilience to be able to keep on delivering that service. So I suppose the first one’s resilience.

And the second’s about aspiration. You need to always be setting a target that’s challenging, to make it better. Great things have happened in Scotland and I think sometimes we forget how far we’ve come over the last 10 to15 years – the progress has been huge. People say to me all the time “how does Scotland achieve that?” and surely it’s because of the people who are in it. The people out in local government that just show that discretionary effort, that just go that one step further. They bring their whole self to work and it’s not just a job and it never has been. And that’s what I think is pretty extraordinary.