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APPG calls for ‘more ambition’ in researching sport’s role in the CJS

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sport and Physical Activity in the Criminal Justice System has called for more ambition and coordination in gathering the evidence to prove sport and physical activity’s positive impact on crime.

Whilst there is much outstanding work by frontline practitioners using sport and physical activity to reduce crime, violence and reoffending both in custody and in the community, research is yet to be of sufficient scale to fully capture its impact and effect change in future policy and practice.

“We’ve made enormous progress, but we now need to be more ambitious,” said guest speaker Prof. Rosie Meek, author of the 2018 Independent Review of Sport in Justice, at the fifth meeting of the APPG on Wednesday 20 October.

Prof. Meek added: “It’s no longer enough to have a succession of small research projects in this area. If we want to achieve our ambition of embedding sport and physical activity at the heart of the Criminal Justice System, we need to see comprehensive evaluations of existing programmes, a coordinated approach and we need support from the top-down.”

Dr Caron Walpole from Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences agreed. “We know people are collecting data, but it’s not robust enough,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that sport isn’t having a positive impact, it just means that we lack good evidence to prove it.”

Dr. Walpole outlined the barriers to collecting this evidence, including the complexity of young people’s lives, ‘the conundrum of prevention’ (i.e. proving that someone’s desistance from offending was directly because of a sport-based intervention) and the lack of resources and expertise available to sport practitioners to gather and evaluate evidence themselves. This often results in, she said, an overreliance on “anecdotal stories” to prove sport’s impact. To address this, Dr. Walpole encouraged a child first approach to charting a young person’s journey backed by long-term funding for sports programmes and a parallel commitment to measuring its impact over many years.

Collaboration with cross-sector partners is also key, including embracing ‘secondary data’ from agencies such as Youth Justice, Youth Offending Teams, the police, early intervention and child services to build a more holistic picture of the effect sport and physical activity has on an individual’s behaviour and attitudes.

Both Dr. Walpole and Prof. Meek called for a ‘central hub’ for research in this area, bringing together impact evidence from the myriad of community sport organisations, and those working in the secure estate, who do such incredible work on the frontline.

“They all have really good insight and evidence to bring to the table,” said Dr. Walpole. “We need to collaborate with them all, large and small. Community projects have so much to tell us, we just need to be able to capture it.”

The meeting’s third guest speaker, Dr. Haydn Morgan from the University of Bath, outlined his recent research with colleague Dr. Colin Baker on the effectiveness of partnerships in sport and criminal justice.

He echoed the frustrations at the lack of coordination and the calls for a unified approach to evidence collection, stating that “cross-party consensus” may be needed due to the complexity of the many different government and justice departments and external stakeholders in this sphere.

“What we haven’t got yet is a cohesive approach to our monitoring and evaluation,” said Dr. Morgan. “We’ve got individual jigsaw pieces, but we need to start putting those together.

“It’s about building a bigger picture of the mechanisms that enable sport to have positive outcomes for people caught up in the Criminal Justice System.”

Clive Efford MP, the group’s Chair, highlighted the outstanding work in this sphere being carried out by many football clubs under the EFL Trust. “I have seen with my own eyes what an extremely powerful influence these programmes are on vulnerable young people’s lives. It’s vital that research is able to capture that impact at scale in order to justify further investment and expand these opportunities to as many individuals as possible.”

Co-chair Baroness Sater added: “I am delighted that our guest speakers could draw on the evidence to help make the case for using physical activity and sport to keep people out of the Criminal Justice System. However, the need and ambition is clear and we must, and will, do more to better understand what does and doesn’t work.”

Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday 24 November.