The Butler Scholarly Journal

Social policy and evidence-based practice: Ne’er the Twain shall meet?

By Jennifer Simmons

Much like two pandas in a zoo, science and the law can often be reluctant bedfellows, to the detriment of quality output; be it informed policies or baby bears. Often it would appear that the law is in stark contrast with what research has shown to be effective, resulting in a system that fails many who pass through it. One such example is the employment of a youth justice system that has been shown to actively increase risk of reoffending in youths rather than reducing it. Youth offenders institutions act on the belief that the best way to deal with teenagers that present a danger to society is to place them outside of society and into peer group of similar-minded people. Not illogically, this practice has been proven to actually worsen youth repeat offending after release, rather than deter from it. It would appear that new, hip evidence suggesting social-behavioural interventions as the only effective way to deal with youth offending has yet to make its appeal to a structure that believes it is older, wiser and knows far better.

Often real policy reform only occurs after a scandal: the clamour to improve the cohesion of the social support system after the death of baby P, or, more recently, the healthcare reform in the wake of the Francis enquiry into Mid-Staffordshire hospital conditions, highlights the great influence that media attention can have on whether or not adjustments to social systems are considered. It is by no means a new phenomenon that social workers and nurses are overworked, underpaid and that this creates a toxic environment in which mistakes or cutting corners occur. To the detriment of social service users and workers alike, however, it took a media backlash in order for attention to be drawn to the failures in the system and attempts at improvements to be made.

The government is a curious institution in which decisions about policies are made by people who are by no means an expert in that particular field, and it is therefore unsurprising that solid scientific evidence finds it hard to make its voice heard amidst more political pressures. The moral panic surrounding sex offenders has caused several misjudgements to be made on how best to deal with them. The mention of sex offence tends to spark an immediate and powerful emotional response that tends to prevail over our factual knowledge of the topic, and it would appear that policy makers were not immune to this effect. Policies largely ignore all scientific evidence towards the efficacy of therapy in reducing risk of offending in sex offenders, as well as endorsing the use of phallometry as a measurement of sexual deviancy despite lack of evidence for its accuracy. Factual evidence therefore would appear to be irrelevant to policy making if gut-reaction tells us otherwise.

The political equivalent of a Capricorn and a Libra, science and law are by nature incompatible. Science is new and iterative, ever changing and adapting and never still or definite. The law, on the other hand, is founded on precedent, and must provide solid and unchanging guidelines. The reluctance of the government to change and adapt policies in the light of emerging scientific research has nevertheless created a system in which a “the old way is the best way” attitude prevails, a system in which prison reforms are not considered despite evidence that 70% of inmates have mental disorders, a system that fails us despite having all the tools to fix it. Can science and the law ever make it through this difficult marriage? It would be better for all of us if they could try.