Payback with a Purpose

Phil Bowen, co-author of Payback
with a Purpose
 and director of the Centre for Justice Innovation in the U.K.,
discusses what good “community payback” (“community service” in the U.S.) should look like, comparing
the experience in the U.K. with New York City
. The debate about what community payback ought
to be comes at a crucial time for probation services in England and Wales, where the Government is committed
to encouraging non-state organizations to provide community payback.

SCHWEIG: Hi, I’m Sarah Schweig of the Center for Court Innovation and today I’m talking with Phil Bowen. Phil Bowen
is the director of the Centre for Justice Innovation in London, and international project of the Center for Court
Innovation that works to promote thoughtful criminal justice reform in the United Kingdom. Phil has just written
a new paper called Payback with a Purpose, about community service, or as it’s called in the U.K., community payback.
And so today he’s here in our New York office and will be discussing some new thinking about giving back to the community
and what it can mean for offenders and communities here in New York and overseas. Thanks for speaking with me today.

PHIL BOWEN: It’s my pleasure.

SARAH SCHWEIG: So just to start off, I think many people
would consider community service or community payback a good thing for the community, but can community payback benefit
both the neighborhood as well as the offenders, and how can it do that?

PHIL BOWEN: Sure. I mean,
I think community payback, when it’s done well, focuses on local issues of concern to a neighborhood, local problems,
whether that be gang graffiti tagging or streets that sort of feel unsafe at night. So payback should be a place
where local law enforcement agencies and local neighborhoods come together to figure out how they can use unpaid
labor to solve problems in their communities. For offenders, it’s about getting them to reflect on what it feels
like to do a good day’s work in that community and put something back on the table for the crime and the harm they’ve
caused. So I think good payback should work at both those levels, looking at how to solve problems for neighborhoods
but helping offenders to move away from a life of crime.

SARAH SCHWEIG: In this paper, Payback
with a Purpose, you mention that the community payback system is sort of at a crossroads in the U.K. Can you speak
a bit about this and maybe what led up to that, and sort of where it is now?

there’s been a government policy since the election of the coalition government 2010 to look at how they can open
up statewide services to other providers, and how that’s kind of played out in the criminal justice field has been
looking at community payback in particular and thinking about, well how can we get other people to provide the service,
rather than it just being provided by the Public Health and Probation Trust. So in July the first big contract was
awarded, it was awarded to a private firm called Circo, who have partnered up with London Probation to deliver community
payback. So it is at a sort of crossroads. You’ve got opportunity where new providers can come in and maybe deliver
it a bit differently, and I guess the theory of change is, can they reduce the costs, reduce recidivism, and provide
something that’s maybe more meaningful to communities.

SARAH SCHWEIG: And I would imagine like
organization of these projects can be very complex logistically and in terms of, you know, the kind of bureaucracies
that are in charge. How do you think, considering that, considering how kind of the delivery on that level can be
kind of complicated and politicized, how do you think community payback practices can ensure that projects remain
or maybe even become more meaningful to the community? Help them be more meaningful based on the sentences that are
being fulfilled?

PHIL BOWEN: Well I guess part of the purpose of writing the paper was to reflect
on, like what’s the really important thing here? The important thing is having payback that works for communities,
that’s engaged with neighborhood associations and civic groups, and that is really driven by local needs. Part of
the point of the paper was to remind people of that because a lot of the discussion in the U.K. has been about contracts
and how the money flows, and who’s getting commissioned. So we have a concern that in that discussion about how payback
will be commissioned, people might lose the picture on what actually really matters to the victims and communities.

SARAH SCHWEIG: So you’ve been listening to some lessons learned from community service practices in New
York City. Can you speak a little about maybe some things that stood out for you, and also how they’ve helped potentially
inform the new thinking about community payback in England?

PHIL BOWEN: I mean in many ways what
the paper’s done is it documents about eight or nine key principles that should be in any good community payback
program. Some of those, in fact most of those won’t be used to practice in England, Wales. I think in many really
good projects that’s what’s happening in England and Wales. What we wanted to do is remind people of those principles
and to make sure that however the new contracts and the new providers come aboard, that has to be the core of what
they do. There’s a great opportunity for building on those principles. They can deliver something that’s even better.
I think one of the things that is striking about the New York practice, which is maybe a bit different than what
we have in England and Wales, is a lot of the Center for Court Innovation projects are based around courthouses.
So there’s a real priority on getting people right after they’ve been sentenced, putting them into an intake office
and set them up for a mandate, and that mandate is worked as quickly as possible. So the sort of idea of swift and
sure justice is one that is actually delivered here. It’s one that I think in England and Wales people embrace and
they get, but whether they’re actually able to deliver it at the moment, I think that’s in question.

SCHWEIG: Right, right. There were some—

PHIL BOWEN: Yeah, there’s a sort of classic anecdote that
people would do one day of community services every week and it would stretch on for months and months, and then
it would take two weeks to get them started. No, I think that’s a bit of a myth these days, but I think like all
myths, there’s some truth in it.

SARAH SCHWEIG: The paper does a great job highlighting lessons
from New York and specific cases, and sort of talking about the larger picture too. So, you know, New York and London
are obviously both large urban areas. But I assume that while similar in that way, they also share many differences.
What do you think, in general, are some of the things to keep in mind about applying lessons learned from, you know,
one city to another, or one location to another?

PHIL BOWEN: I think this is a really good question
and something that we’ve struggled with on a daily basis of, you know, looking at particular projects in New York
that are in our field, how do we deliver those in London, or in the U.K. more generally? And I think, you know, one
of the key things to do is to sort of move up a level of instruction and think okay, what are the key ingredients
of making, say, the Redhook Community Justice Center work so well? It’s not necessarily about exactly following a
detailed play book. It’s thinking about, well these guys are really engaging very well with their communities, so
that’s what the core of the values should be, but part of the particularity of communities is understanding that
they’re all different and that you need to respond to those differences. So when we’re advising practitioners about
how to come up with new ideas, we always try to make sure that we’re clear about grounding, the circumstances, the
assets of your community. I mean one key difference, for example, between London and New York is we’ve got a much
bigger state sector. You’ve got National Health Service provides centralized medicine, you know? Those kinds of things,
and they are big things. So you have to always ground whatever you’re trying to do in the circumstances that face
you, rather than try to think that there’s a sort of blueprint that originated in New York and all we have to do
is follow it exactly.

SARAH SCHWEIG: Right. And so just as sort of a take away, since your paper
really addresses this sort of crossroads that’s taking place in the U.K. about public and private services being
utilized, what do you see as some of the potential advantages coming about in the future, from that partnership?

PHIL BOWEN: Well I think one of the takeaways from the New York experience is to, you know, tell a practitioner
in the U.K. that this doesn’t necessarily have to be a scary thing, that it can lead to great renovation, it can
lead to sort of dynamic partnerships with community groups and volunteer sector organizations that maybe you haven’t
worked with before. So it can actually really add value. But it’s about being really clear about what the values
and vision should be, and having that collective vision. And that’s certainly my take away from the New York experience—has
been over 15 years, has been this commitment to a particular vision of payback that’s allowed New York to go from
a position where, frankly, community payback was a bit of a neglected service to something that’s really vibrant
and dynamic. So I guess our message is embrace the change, but embrace the right circumstances.

SCHWEIG: That’s great. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I’m Sarah Schweig and I’ve been speaking with
Phil Bowen at the Center for Justice Innovation in London, about community payback. To find out more about the Center
for Court Innovation or the Centre for Justice Innovation, visit our website at Thanks for