Rod Morgan's need to get his 'feet dirty' has kept him from a life in the ivory tower but should also stand him in good stead in his latest role as chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, writes Terry Philpot.
Four precariously stacked piles of books stand against the walls of Rod Morgan's office at the Youth Justice Board, where he took over as chief executive last month. When he will get around to putting them on the shelves is anyone's guess: we meet in the evening as his days are full, and the following week he is off to Trinidad to investigate prisoners on death row for Amnesty International.
But the books' presence is practical and symbolic. Although he joined the board after almost three years as chief inspector of the probation service, his life until then had been as an academic, most recently as professor of criminology at Bristol University, where he now holds an emeritus chair.
He brings the insights of his academic discipline to the board - which, with its £380 million annual budget (70 per cent of which goes on custodial provision), is responsible for youth justice policy and the purchase of custodial places.
But Morgan's has never been an ivory-tower existence. He founded and chaired a charity that runs hostels for ex-offenders. He also spent 20 years as a magistrate and has been a member of the Parole Board and of a police authority, a prison visitor, and chair of a local community safety and crime reduction partnership. He sat as a member of Lord Woolf's 1990 inquiry into the Strangeways riots ("I got a bit of a taste for Whitehall"). He has held just about every post a layperson can hold in the criminal justice system. "I needed to get my feet dirty," he says.
His academic insight will perhaps be most brought to bear at the Youth Justice Board in terms of his emphasis on public accountability and evidence-based policy. Morgan says evidence-based work is about finding ways of dealing with young people serving time and stopping them offending again. He also wants to ensure that the hard questions are asked and given the fullest answers.
His career might look like a fairly natural progression, but he says: "I wouldn't say that I was a careerist, and I'm not a very ambitious person.
For the most part, I have followed my nose. I have also always had an interest in research and, in the past 20 years, probably did more of that than teaching. The rest is happenstance."
For example, his work in the 1980s for the Home Office on safeguards for those held in police custody under the new Police and Criminal Evidence Act led the Council of Europe to seek his advice on the implementation of the European Union Convention on the Prevention of Torture (it accepted his recommendations). He ended up, he says with a smile, as an expert on detention and torture, produced several books and worked with Amnesty International.
He applied to be chief inspector of prisons, but he was not surprised when he did not get an interview. However, the same application form also served for the probation inspectorate job. And that went to him.
The Youth Justice Board and the associated locally based youth offending teams, set up under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, have got off to a mostly good start: youth crime has fallen and youth custody rates have come down after a period of continuing rise. At the moment, though, custodial occupancy rates are at 99 per cent, rather than the planned-for 90 per cent. This allows the board no room for manoeuvre. "This appears to be a reversal of all we had been achieving," Morgan says with concern.
He believes that custodial rates can be cut radically while reducing offending. He is keen to open the debate with those doing the sentencing on "cheaper, more effective and more humane ways of dealing with kids other than custody". He says those sentencing have to see that their local youth offending teams and other support organisations are able to provide supervision and surveillance to control behaviour while also dealing with some of the factors that foster criminal behaviour.
Achieving such progressive aims may be difficult given that government policy also encompasses rhetoric that attacks young offenders and includes measures such as the antisocial behaviour orders. ASBOs are used for civil offences, but youngsters who breach them can be drawn into the criminal justice system. If they are, there is a good chance they will end up in prison. Morgan has expressed his opposition to ASBOs in the past, but he now wants to see what role youth offending teams play in the assessment of youngsters affected by them.
He also wants to look at whether ASBO conditions "set up some young people to fail by imposing on them middle-class expectations".
He says: "Look at how middle-class people support their children: they drive them to school, they run them to this activity and that activity.
Many of the ASBO youngsters have no supports, no one to see that they turn up anywhere. I am not excusing them, but I want to ask how feasible and practical the conditions are."
But don't members of the public support punitive measures? Morgan believes that, if they are offered sophisticated options, they do not come up with regressive measures. And when they do suggest solutions, they often come up with what is already on the books for those doing the sentencing. The public's main concern is that crime and anti-social behaviour should stop.
A key task for the board is tackling the small hard core of young offenders who commit a high proportion of offences, while keeping the majority of young offenders out of custody. Morgan wants to address the fact that the earlier a young person gets involved with crime, the longer his or her criminal career is likely to be and the more difficult it will be for them to stop.
This will not be "a bed of roses", but he adds: "It's great to be asked at my age to learn some new tricks in this job."
But can an old dog learn them? "If I can't," Morgan says with obvious glee, "I'm sure I'll be told!"