American alternatives: a study journey


Open House’s arts editor recently travelled to Canada and the USA on a Winston Churchill Travelling Research Fellowship to look at diversion courts and alternative community based services.

‘What does the name Winston Churchill mean to you?’ The question was delivered to me by a peer of the realm in the London office of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust back in February 2013. Encouraged by friends and colleagues I had applied four months previously for one of the Trust’s annual Fellowship awards. By February I had made it onto the shortlist for interview and travelled to London to make my pitch.

The Trust offers around 100 travelling research fellowship awards every year across several categories ranging from the arts to health and education. I had applied under the new category of ‘Penal Reform’. My work with a national third sector care and support organisation involves the development of services for people with learning support needs in the criminal justice system and I had identified relevant good practice examples in Canada and the USA which I was keen to see first hand.

The question came at the end of a very pleasant interview and, inexcusably, took me by surprise. Given that the face, name, words and cardboard-cut-out form of Winston Churchill were all very much in evidence I should perhaps have anticipated a question about him. Such are the perils of self-absorption.

In response I could only manage something depressingly unimaginative about World War II before my interviewer pointed out to me that Sir Winston had been, in his younger days as Home Secretary, an outspoken advocate of penal reform. I should have known that, but what I did know and, more importantly, what I wanted to learn and bring home, is what won the award. In these days of targets, statistics and outcomes measures, the fact that the Trust simply rewards a good idea, along with the desire and ability to put it to good use, is utterly commendable, and arguably the result of a certain kind of social confidence.

Two of Open House’s most forensic contributors provided me with a way into the experience of diversion courts in the USA which was where I wanted to begin.

Diversion courts haven’t gained much ground yet in the UK but in various parts of the US they are a developing way of keeping people out of prison. Mental health and drug and alcohol courts are the most common examples where treatment rather than punishment is identified as the most appropriate response to law breaking. The conditions are usually that the offences are not violent or sexual in nature and that the offender is not too far down the recidivism road. Moves in Scotland to introduce something similar are being mooted and were recently reflected in the press coverage of Lord Carloway’s suggested sentencing re-think.

Learning disability (or learning difficulty, or learning support need), though prevalent within any criminal justice system, tends to be subsumed within the category of mental health, an anomaly that disadvantages both. I was interested to see how and where learning impairment (as North America tends to have it) made itself known within this and other presenting social issues such as addiction or homelessness.

As could probably only be the case in America, it was a creative and charismatic judge who demonstrated how possible and effective taking the diversion route can be and, in an inversion of the norm, provided a new take on qui bono. Judge Joe Will of Volusia County, Florida was determined that those who came before him should have at least the chance of an alternative to custody and, if the day I spent in his court was any indication, most people were eager to avail themselves of his demanding alternative.

Delancey Street
Demanding alternatives were something of a hallmark of the whole journey as I left Florida to visit a selection of community based services elsewhere in the USA and Canada. The first of these was the Delancey Street Foundation in upstate New York.

Delancey Street was founded over forty years ago in San Francisco (where I completed their three day course a few weeks later). Its originators were two men liberated from custody for the umpteenth time who decided that a lifetime of professional intervention had had no positive impact at all and that the change they now wanted to bring about could only be achieved through their own insight and efforts. They took a loan from a local shark, rented an apartment, found a couple of jobs in construction and began the slow task of supporting each other along the straight and narrow. Gradually the knocks on the door were those of other liberated prisoners rather than of cops and social workers and forty plus years later Delancey Street has six ‘facilities’ across the United States supporting almost 1000 men and women.

Of all the community based services I visited Delancey was the most radical in its departure from established and received voluntary sector ‘wisdom’. The rules are simple: no external funding; no formal referral process; assessment for suitability conducted by existing residents; everyone works; everyone leaves with three marketable skills; no alcohol; no drugs; no sex. Apart from the alcohol I was struck by the slightly ‘religious community’ feel about it all and there were certainly parallels with bodies such as Emmaus and L’Arche. The strength of autonomy that comes with generating your own income and therefore being non-reliant on government and other external funding was clear. At the same time the absence of external accountability made me nervous and I don’t think that is entirely due to my own controlling instincts.

Delancey have effectively drawn from an elite among the marginalised: talented people who, when freed from temptation and malign opportunity, flourish in what is effectively a variety of residential industries. If you’re among them it works very well and as a ‘professional’ it certainly gave me pause.

Sir Winston was a great believer in using travel to enhance insight and the Trust has continued this principle through the nature of the Fellowships. It’s not just what you want to look at which interests them but where and why. In choosing North America I chose the culture and social circumstances both most akin to that of the UK and most likely to ask questions of it. The possibilities that exist, particularly in the expanse of the US, to make a good idea happen without the throttling restrictions of over- regulation, drew for me an enlightening parallel with the experience of those we refer to as the people we support. People who have experienced our criminal justice system with all the restrictions of a learning disability know what it means to be over-regulated and suppressed. If what we call ‘support’ continues to be strangled by institutional and professional self- protectionism they are the people who will continue on the cycle of dependency and exclusion.

As so often, the dream that is American offers bright as well as terrible alternatives.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.