Art, Science and the Challenge of Justice Reform

Almost every week brings more grim news about the state of criminal justice in the United States: Unwarranted uses of force, fees and fines being used to balance municipal budgets, dire statistics about mass incarceration, protests in the streets… the list goes on and on.

Alongside these developments, we have seen—drip by drip—the continued erosion of public trust in justice, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and among communities of color.

How should we respond to these challenges?

In recent days, a veritable cottage industry has emerged that suggests that we already know the answers. An article in Vox declares: “We Know How to Stop Gun Violence.” In an op-ed, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, writes,” We know what works. And now is the time to rally behind these proven solutions and bring them to scale.”

Beyond “Nothing Works”

As these, and other, voices of reform have highlighted, we have come a long way since the days that researchers despaired that “nothing works” to reduce crime or to change the behavior of offenders.

We now know, for example, that certain interventions — problem-solving courts, focused deterrence initiatives, and targeted therapies, to name just a few — are capable of making an appreciable difference in the lives of offending populations. We also know that if criminal justice officials treat individual defendants and victims with dignity and respect, it is possible to change perceptions of justice and promote law-abiding behavior. And we know that in order to be effective we must carefully match the intensity of the interventions we offer to the level of risk that offenders present.

So why aren’t these practices and programs standard operating procedure in the criminal justice system?

One reason is that there is no single criminal justice system. Rather, there are something like 3,000 local justice systems, each with its own distinct history and traditions. While federal officials can help change the national conversation and articulate a path for reform, to effect change within the criminal justice system means going county by county to change the practice (and hopefully, the hearts and minds) of local police officials, judges, prosecutors and others.

Resistance to Change

We should not underestimate the enormity of this challenge. Any effort to create a kinder, more rational justice system that does not misuse incarceration must confront the realities of local institutional cultures that are deeply resistant to change.

We learned this lesson from a randomized controlled trial that our agency, the Center for Court Innovation in New York City, recently completed.

The goal of the study was to evaluate an effort to encourage clinicians to use validated assessment tools to match addicted defendants to appropriate treatments. Despite their willingness to participate in the study and use the assessment instruments, the study found that the clinicians failed to change their actual treatment decisions. When the advice of the tools conflicted with their instincts, they stuck with their usual way of doing business.

To paraphrase the late management guru Peter F. Drucker, culture ate strategy for breakfast.

Experience teaches us that reforming the justice system is both an art and a science. If we are to do this right, we need to be nerds. We need to be clear thinkers who look at data and consult the latest social science and statistical techniques.

But we also need to be guided by compassion and to remember that the justice system is not an abstract process or a series of numbers on a page. It is a collection of people. And no matter what role they have been assigned in this drama—be they police officers or perpetrators, concerned citizens or community corrections officials—all of these actors are animated by the same tangle of motivations and idiosyncrasies that always drive human behavior. We can never hope to improve justice unless we wrestle with this reality.

A Window of Opportunity

We are living through a unique moment of public interest in justice reform. How long this moment will last is anyone’s guess. As Adam Gopnik warned in The New Yorker, we should not fall prey to amnesia about the effect of crime on middle-class voters – the political appetite for change may be highly dependent upon voters’ sense of personal safety.

Seizing the current window of opportunity means more than just identifying the right policy goals or providing money to scale up model programs. We need to be thoughtful about the details of implementation, and give practitioners the tools and training they need to do things differently. We need to actively engage frontline justice professionals in the reform process to ensure that they will take ownership of new ideas rather than working behind the scenes to subvert them.

And we need to be patient: It took us years to get into this mess, and we should expect that it will take us years to get out of it.

But we are optimistic that by marrying good ideas to careful implementation, it is possible to change the culture of local justice systems—and help them become fairer, more effective, and more humane.

Greg Berman and Julian Adler are, respectively, the director and director of research-practice strategies at the Center for Court Innovation. They are working on a book, to be published by The New Press, about how to safely reduce mass incarceration.