Criminology in Practice

Scharff Smith on Research and Reform

In this article Peter Scharff Smith, co-editor of Scandinavian Penal History, Culture and Prison Practice, discusses the potential for interdisciplinary, empirical research to change the world.

What is the point of all the research, the books and articles we keep producing? Can we change the world by wielding a pencil, or rather by typing happily away on a keyboard? Are we merely talking to ourselves? Do you sometimes ask yourself these questions in a moment of doubt? In academia we are rewarded by publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals and books with peer-reviewing publishers, but in a world with a hastily expanding knowledge production and continuous online dissemination from all kinds of sources we sometimes risk two things: a) that we are primarily writing to our peers, and b) that rather few people actually read our stuff. Of course it’s possible to write a bestselling book or get thousands of downloads of peer-reviewed journal articles – and it’s certainly a great feeling when that happens – but still that’s hardly a guarantee that our research will spark changes in the world we study. However, having such an impact is of course possible although it can require a lot of effort and dedication. In the following I will briefly describe my own experience in creating prison reforms based on empirical research about the children of imprisoned parents.

In 2005, as a young researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights in Copenhagen, I was approached by my director who wanted to do something about prisons. The case of prisoners’ children appealed to us for three basic reasons. Firstly, it was clearly an important area, as it involved a large number of vulnerable and more or less forgotten children. Secondly, it was a new area of research, both from a criminological and a human rights perspective. Finally, it was an area where it seemed plausible that we could make an impact.

At that time the Danish political agenda was heavily influenced by penal populism. When taking office in 2002, the Danish Minister of Justice Lene Espersen explained that she wanted to govern with her “inner sense of justice”, which she claimed to share with “ordinary citizens”, while she clearly regarded criminological advice and research as less important1.  The general influence of penal populism meant that it was difficult to seriously discuss prisons and punishment. But perhaps serious research on prisoners’ children would produce a different result? What would happen, for example, if the public sense of justice was informed about these children, their situation and their sense of justice?

I decided to focus on the perspective of these children and on the rights of the child, and began some pilot research, after which we decided to see what a dialogue amongst key stakeholders could bring to the arena. Accordingly, I arranged two meetings, with representatives of the Danish Prison and Probation Service, the National Council for Children, the police, the social authorities, the Danish Red Cross, associations for prisoners’ relatives, inmate spokespersons, and previously imprisoned parents, among others. There were some heated arguments, and it was clear that not everyone agreed on everything. However, it was striking that all participants were willing to do something for these children. My colleague Janne Jakobsen and I therefore drew up a research project and were granted funding from the Danish Egmont Foundation. This became the first of three different projects on children of imprisoned parents.

The first research project was carried out from 2007–2010 and consisted of data collection and analysis with regards to children of imprisoned parents in Denmark. Focus was on how these children were met and treated by the state representatives they encountered throughout the whole process: from their parents’ arrest, to their imprisonment and release. Empirical data consisted of interviews with more than 80 practitioners from various institutions and representatives from NGOs; prison visits in Denmark, Italy, the United Kingdom and Sweden; and a countrywide survey of all prisons, police districts and local social services in Denmark. A study of the relevant human rights standards and Danish law was also carried out. By consciously focusing on the relevant state actors – including their working methods, culture and the legal frameworks within which they take action – we hoped to produce research that could be used in practice.2.

The second project on children of imprisoned parents was a European Union (EU funded) project based on the model of our first Danish study. Four studies of varying scale and scope were conducted in Northern Ireland, Denmark, Italy and Poland. The research uncovered both problems and good practices, and demonstrated that although prison conditions and economic and legal situations vary substantially in the selected countries, the problems experienced by the children were remarkably similar.3.

In Denmark we sensed that we had an opportunity to do much more than simply hand over recommendations, which we did by engaging with the media, and also meeting personally with the Danish Minister of Justice. Through a continuous dialogue with the various relevant actors, we knew that we had brought these parties close and secured a more or less common platform based on the results of our research and not least the process of dialogue itself. Hence we had in fact created a basis for reform.

This was the starting point for our third project, which was funded by Ole Kirk’s Foundation (i.e. the toy maker Lego) and constituted a very concrete attempt to implement children’s rights and alleviate some of the problems that children of imprisoned parents faced in Denmark. We trained selected prison staff as children’s officers who worked in their respective institutions to firmly anchor the child’s perspective in the individual prisons. The project ran for two years (2010–2011) in four prisons. We focused on introducing simple and reliable measures to improve children’s contact with their parents as well as their experience when visiting in prison. Activities included improving visiting facilities and procedures, running study groups for imprisoned parents and arranging child‐friendly events4.

When the project was over and the funding spent a phase followed in which awareness raising and timing were key factors if one wanted to influence both the bureaucratic and political process. We therefore engaged specific NGOs, state officials and politicians and got the issue into national media. In November 2012 we were successful and the Danish government and parliament decided to implement the children’s officers’ scheme on a national basis. As a result, all Danish prisons (remand and sentenced) now have children’s officers. In line with our recommendations further government initiatives have since followed introducing, among other things, parental study groups for imprisoned parents and transport funding for visiting children. One of the many outcomes of this project is that almost all prisons in Denmark now have new child friendly visiting facilities and procedures – in stark contrast to former times. In addition I think it’s fair to say that these reforms have instigated further cultural changes within the Danish Prison Service in terms of how the various institutions and their staff perceive themselves and their role in society. Essentially it is my hope that these events have helped break down some of the otherwise massive barriers between prison and society. And how did it all begin – with cross-disciplinary and old-fashioned empirical research!


1.       Peter Scharff Smith (2014) When the Innocent are Punished. The Children of Imprisoned Parents, Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke

2.       Peter Scharff Smith and Janne Jakobsen (2010) Når straffen rammer uskyldige. Børn af fængsede i Danmark, Gyldendal: Copenhagen.

3.       Peter Scharff Smith and Lucy Gampell (eds.) (2011) Children of Imprisoned Parents, The Danish Institute for Human Rights: Copenhagen.

4.        Lise G. Hendriksen, Janne Jakobsen and Peter Scharff Smith (2012) Børneansvarlige i Kriminalforsorgen. Fokus på de indsattes børn, The Danish Institute for Human Rights: Copenhagen.

Peter Scharff Smith is Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights in Denmark.