Australians were rightly ashamed last week to see the Four Corners program on brutality against children at the Don Dale Detention Centre in the Northern Territory. Yes, it is to our credit as a people that we can feel national disgust at this and establish a Royal Commission to report on what we need to do about it.

But it is not to our credit that we can have so many commissions of enquiry over the years—in this case even into the very same problem at the very same institution—and not achieve any permanent institutional change.

The Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987 was our most important in this genre. It argued that the best solution to institutionalized corrections abuse was to transform our criminal justice institutions so fewer Aboriginal offenders are incarcerated. Our failure at this institutional task has been monumental. The Aboriginal incarceration rate is much higher today than it was when the Australian government accepted the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody[1].

Miranda Forsyth, Mary Ivec and I are developing a research project to try to answer the question of how sustainable transformation to the vengefulness of our justice system occurs when it does occur.

Is the key NOT Royal Commissions but mass engagement with restorative practices as discussed in my recent blog post on the ending of blood feuds in Kosovo? Or is it a combination of this kind of culture change with structural change to justice institutions?

We indeed do suspect that the key is the combination of the two. But how is this done when it is done well? That is the question our research will seek to answer through fine-grained analysis of cases of real transformation and failed transformation.

In a different way Meredith Edelman’s RegNet PhD is grappling with this on the question of clerical sexual abuse of children in Australia and the United States. It is another area where we have had so many scandals and so many enquiries in so many countries over decades—actually over centuries if one looks harder—but a failure to transform sustainably either institutions or organizational cultures.

Lawrence Sherman’s old book Scandal and Reform goes to this question as did Brent Fisse’ and my The Impact of Publicity on Corporate Offenders. Sherman found that following police corruption scandals in the US, the leaders of corrupt cultures go to ground for a period, or “hunker down for a while” as one of the corporate executives from the Fisse and Braithwaite study put it.

Yet Sherman found that sustainable transformation of corrupt police cultures did sometimes occur when scandal and shame was combined with institutional changes such as transformed preventive Standard Operating Procedures and a long-term commitment to integrity testing of police.

What are your thoughts about how to have Royal Commissions that produce sustained social change?

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[1] for more information about progress against the recommendations of the RCIADIC as at 2015, refer to this review.