National Institute of Corrections
You are not signed in! To post comments and participate in discussions you need to sign in or create a free account.
Policy and Practice Briefs: Failure

Failure haunts mental health-related aspects of corrections policy and practice, as it does other areas of criminal justice and corrections policy and practice. Yet failure is rarely featured in most conversations about criminal justice or mental health programming. Or when failure is raised, it is rarely explored.

In mid-July 2010, Greg Berman of the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) wrote the following note to Douglas Berman, the unrelated editor of an influential legal blog on sentencing practices:

“The vast majority of what police, prosecutors, defenders, correctional officials, probation officers and judges do on a daily basis is not supported by strong, scientific evidence.  Indeed, there is an enormous gulf between frontline criminal justice practitioners and social science researchers. One sign of this is the field’s resistance to the scientific method — the process of trial and error. In general, criminal justice officials don’t feel they have the latitude to talk honestly about a simple reality: new initiatives are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed.

Over the course of researching the book, we learned a number of important lessons, including the challenge that criminal justice officials face in trying to meet the often unrealistic expectations of elected officials and the general public. There are no silver bullets when it comes to changing the behavior of offenders or reducing crime in hard-hit urban neighborhoods.

But perhaps the most important lesson we learned is that the closer one looks, the harder it is to draw a clear, defining line between what works and what doesn’t in criminal justice. Initiatives like drug court and Operation Ceasefire that succeed spectacularly in one place can fail miserably in another. Even the drug prevention DARE, which is almost universally reviled by researchers, has achieved some positive results in some jurisdictions.

In a perfect world, it would be nice to be able to make black-and-white judgments about reforms. But like so much of life, criminal justice is dominated by shades of grey. Acknowledging this reality is crucial if we ever hope to have an honest, rational conversation about criminal justice policy in this country.”

The book Berman refers to is Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure, which he wrote with Aubrey Fox, a colleague at CCI’s offices in New York City. In this book, which was recently published by the Urban Institute Press, Berman and Fox write conversational accounts of five “well intended efforts that for one reason or another fell short of their stated objectives”: the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, the St.Louis Police Department’s Consent to Search initiative, drug courts, Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, and California parole reform. Berman and Fox also examine how politics cripple and sometimes fix the environment for meaningful reform.

“Learning lessons from the past is not a particular strength of the criminal justice systems,” Berman and Fox note. In their review of criminal justice failure with certain police, court, and parole initiatives, they report finding four major themes: Not all failures are alike, failure is rarely a simple matter of one side versus another, politics plays a significant role in the success or failure of any initiative, and the implementation of ideas is as important as the ideas themselves.

Failure, the authors say, is common, and perhaps inevitable. Plus, short-term failure is not necessarily long-term failure. They argue for the normalization of failure. Failure is “often inevitable and even acceptable.”  Failed efforts, they suggest, can provide “valuable information and guidance.” They urge “consistent and persistent risk-taking.”

Berman and Fox posit a series of mistakes and lessons learned from what they call “promising failures”: Criminal justice practitioners often fail to “engage in self-reflection.” Accordingly, they should consistently ask themselves what is or is not working and why, or maybe just simply how did this happen. Success is often defined too strictly as “reducing or stopping crime.” But other goals are important to achieve as localities move toward this larger objective, including the education of the public and criminal justice and governmental officials. Beran and Fox raise questions that should be asked: What makes a program work in some places but not others; can successful components be found within failed programs, and how is it that initiatives sometimes work better for some groups, but not for others?

Berman and Fox argue that more research, even in an age of evidence-based practices, does not necessarily lead to better, more rational practices. Empirical research has limits and cannot replace personal and professional judgment. Similarly, they suggest that one should not expect too much from criminal justice reform efforts. Modesty is more appropriate and realistic. As they rightfully observe, “individuals involved in the criminal justice system bring a staggering array of problems with them, including joblessness, addiction, mental illness, and low literacy rates, as well as histories of poverty and abuse. This is a difficult message to deliver to the public, and to public officials. But having a more honest conversation about criminal justice reform means redefining expectations.”

Other mistakes and lessons the authors note include local politics (don’t worry so much about who takes credit), planning in isolation (collaborate strategically), implementation details (spend time on them), and top-down approaches (those at the bottom of agency hierarchies are as important for successful change as those on the top).

Posted Wed, Mar 2 2011 1:24 PM by Tracey Vessels


Be the first to comment on this article!
You must sign in or create an account to comment.
Brought to you by:
National Institute of Corrections
U.S. Dept. of Justice | 320 First Street | Washington, DC 20534 | 800.995.6423

This blog is funded by a contract from the National Institute of Corrections, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view or opinions stated in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.