Professor Jacqueline Tombs: An appreciation

JACQUELINE Tombs, who has died aged 69 after a short illness, was an enormously significant figure in the development of criminal justice policy and research in Scotland throughout her career in a range of different roles. Her passionate support for penal change reflected her lifelong commitment to fairness, social justice and decency – qualities that were evident to all who knew her in everything she did.

Jackie graduated from the pioneering Diploma in Criminology at Cambridge in 1972. With characteristic enterprise she went on to study the history of slavery at the University of Pennsylvania, returning to complete a PhD at the University of Edinburgh on ‘Law and Slavery in North America’ under the supervision of Peter Young, in 1982. One of her examiners – the notoriously hard-to-impress Paul Hirst – described it as ‘a Rolls-Royce’ among PhD theses.

For much of the 1980s and until the mid-90s she was Head of the Central Research Unit in the Scottish Home and Health Department, and latterly the Scottish Executive, during a period when it was noted for producing imaginative and challenging research and policy advice. The Unit was in many ways a model for what a social science research unit within Government can and should be.

Jackie conducted significant work during this period, such as that which she and Susan Moody produced in Prosecution in the Public Interest (1982), an important but empirically neglected topic in the UK and one in which Scotland’s traditions and legal culture were distinctive. It sparked interest and research on prosecutorial consistency abroad, for example in the Netherlands.

She commissioned or supported much other important work, too. The latter included some outright classic studies such as Pat Carlen’s Women’s Imprisonment (1983), and W. G. Carson’s The Other Price of Britain’s Oil (1982). Several of today’s leading researchers in the field began their careers there under her mentorship. Jackie was famously proud and protective of those young careers, and many of ‘Jackie’s Gals’ (and lads) recall her influence with gratitude and affection to this day.

She was committed to understanding the perspectives of offenders and crime controllers/campaigners using both qualitative and quantitative data non-dogmatically.

With Drummond Hunter, Peter Young, the distinguished psychiatrist Bruce Ritson and others, she was a founding and key member of the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice and its first Director of Research.

The Consortium was a striking innovation in what would much later come to be termed ‘knowledge exchange’. It brought together leading figures in academic, charitable, campaigning and governmental bodies to support and advance research-informed policy and practice in Scottish criminal justice. To the extent that there was a distinctive, progressive consensus in criminal policy in Scotland in the 1980s and1990s, Jackie’s roles in both the Scottish Office and the Consortium were central to it.

Somewhat later she wrote the important and insightful study, A Unique Punishment: Sentencing and the Prison Population in Scotland (2004) for the Consortium. This study exemplified two key features of her work – a determined, practical focus on reducing the over-use of imprisonment, combined with a clear, sympathetic understanding of the constraints and dilemmas faced by sentencers. Few people – if indeed any others – have done so much to maintain the vital links between research-based knowledge and policy in Scotland.

Jackie was for a number of years a committee member of Howard League Scotland. She was a profound admirer of the humanitarian radicalism of Drummond Hunter, the first Convener of HLS as an independent entity. She was an internationalist by outlook, and no friend of political nationalism anywhere. She was also, however, an intense believer in the civic virtue and egalitarian temper of Scottish public life, principles to which she devoted a great deal of her remarkable energy and heart.

Later, she became Professor of Criminology at the University of Stirling and finally, before retiring, Professor of Criminology and Social Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University. In both capacities she lent support to the development of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, a collaborative multi-institutional research centre that was in key respects built by people both in the universities and in government who had benefited directly from Jackie’s legacy and influence.

Jackie never lost her radical convictions and she was not afraid to voice her views with passion and force in any context. Yet her empathy, charm and her grasp of complex situations made her a unifying figure, as comfortable among senior judges as among prison abolitionists, and held in similar affection and esteem by both. Though she moved easily among the great and good, her people, as she often said, were young people in trouble and others in struggle.

Jackie had many struggles in her own life, which included many complications and great losses. She was deeply committed to, and immensely proud of, her children, Gael and Mark.

As memories and tributes from her many friends around the world have circulated since her death, certain words and themes have recurred. Loud sometimes, fierce on occasion, a bit scary perhaps, at least until you got to know her.

Sparkling, boisterous, naughty. Beautiful, glamorous, vivacious. Raucous, funny, hilarious. Passionate, serious, smart, self-critical. Unique, different, special. Jackie was an extrovert, certainly, but no egotist; and she had little patience with (and some scabrously funny things to say about) conceit and self-absorption in the academic world.

She worked to get people to work and study together, and to change the world in smaller and larger ways in so doing.

Jackie Tombs was a vital and energizing person, fiercely loyal both to people and to causes. The worlds of criminal justice policy and criminological research in Scotland all owe her many debts. She has left a lasting personal and professional legacy.

She is survived by Gael and Mark, and baby grandson, Laurie.

Richard Sparks