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Context is Everything: NZ Harkness Fellow Reflects on the Critical Ingredients for Criminal Justice Reform as Learned Through Observing Evidence-Based Decision-Making in State and Local Jurisdictions
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The justice system is undoubtedly a complex system, and nowhere is this complexity more overwhelming than in the United States. To an outsider, it appears that the US justice system (if it can even be described as a single system) is groaning under the weight of overlapping and costly legislative and institutional changes that have mushroomed over the last century.

Getting “tough on crime” has always been an easy vote-winner, and since the mid-1980s, the two main political parties in the US have been in the business of trying to “out-tough” each other with criminal justice and sentencing policies. The same has been true in NZ since the mid-1990s. Many of the changes made in the last 20-30 years in both countries have not adequately accounted for (or accurately predicted) their full costs – to individuals and to society – and have had the impact of exponentially increasing the number of people sentenced to, or held pretrial, in prison.

As recession-hit budgets continue to shrink in both NZ and the US, “tough on crime” policies have begun to wane in popularity – and in the US we have seen criminal justice reform become a key topic for debate in the Presidential primaries. However, unwinding these “tough on crime” policies is easier said than done, and is likely to require years of debate and legislative reform. In the meantime, practitioners in the US have begun to look for solutions that are not reliant on legislative change.

There is now a sizeable body of evidence on “what works” in criminal justice and crime prevention. The criminal justice system has been a bit slower than the health system to collect, disseminate and apply this evidence, but good progress has been made. Examples of research dissemination include reviews by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, criminal justice reviews by Campbell Collaboration, the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Crimesolutions website, and George Mason University’s Criminal Justice Targeted Research and Application of Knowledge tool suite – as well as many more.

The key though, is somehow getting all of this evidence into the right hands, at the right time, in a way that facilitates long-lasting change. This is the “context is everything” approach that underlies the Evidence-Based Decision-Making (EBDM) model developed and tested by the National Institute of Corrections. Rather than focusing on information asymmetry as the root cause for why the criminal justice system hasn’t evolved to become a learning system, the EBDM model focuses on improving system collaboration around a common set of goals and principles. But beyond the lofty notion of collaboration to achieve common goals, what are the key ingredients that contribute to the success of the EBDM model? This brings me to the 15 C’s of evidence-based criminal justice reform, a list formed over many conversations while I’ve been here at the NIC, and from my observations of the EBDM Policy Team meetings I’ve been lucky enough to attend. After a while, I noticed that these “key ingredients” all started with the letter C[1]:

  • Collaboration: system stakeholders working together as partners
  • Capacity-building: not everyone comes to the EBDM table with knowledge of evidence-based practices – technical assistance providers, trained capacity builders, and other individuals who have been through the EBDM process before, have disseminated knowledge and assisted local teams with their plans
  • Courageous leadership: it takes leadership at all levels of the organisation – and from people around the EBDM table – to actively move away from the status quo and to look for a better way of doing things
  • Competition: just a little bit of competition – between teams, and between States - is healthy, right? It’s the American way, after all.
  • Culture change: new ways of doing things challenge established practices and organisational culture – and that’s okay
  • Commitment: reorienting a whole system takes time and effort – it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen if everyone commits to the vision, attends and participates in the meetings, and gets things done in between
  • Creativity: sometimes a bit of creative thinking is needed to work around current barriers
  • Co-development: system changes that are developed in partnership with other justice system stakeholders will be better than those developed alone
  • Change champions: these are the tireless individuals who go the extra mile, who promote EBDM at every opportunity, who see the vision and the excitement, and can bring people along with them
  • Conversation, conversation, conversation: trust between justice system stakeholders is built on long and detailed conversations that allow everyone to see the system from all angles
  • Constructive conflict: a necessary ingredient for any functioning team – and the facilitators are brilliant at ensuring the discussions continue to have forward momentum
  • Challenging the status quo: at every step being able to ask “why do we do that? Is it necessary? Can we do it differently?”
  • Continuous improvement: making improvements as we go, picking off the low-hanging fruit
  • Community support: many teams have the support of county administrators and state governors, and some have broader community involvement and support
  • Communication: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them, and do it all again.

It is these ingredients that create the environment where the question, “what does the evidence say about that?” becomes the norm. And it is these elements that contribute to a high level of trust among justice system partners. So that when things go wrong, as they invariably do in our business, agencies are standing side by side rather than tearing each other down. Ultimately, they create the context for evidence-based reform, where people who are accustomed to being adversaries suddenly find themselves collaborating to improve the justice system in ways they can all agree on. And there’s the magic.


[1] You’ll note this list doesn’t include “chaos”, “control”, “crying” or “coercion”.




Posted Tue, May 10 2016 6:21 AM by Susan Powell

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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.