High-Functioning Criminal Justice Systems

MacArth_logo_horizontal

Over the past several decades, a vast amount of research has emerged that offers clear guidance to justice system practitioners about the most effective strategies for addressing criminal behavior. The research findings have been slowly finding their way into criminal justice system policy and practice—largely through initiatives focused on reducing the over-reliance on incarceration and pretrial detention in jails. How this research is being applied in local justice systems, and more importantly, if it improves the administration of justice has yet to be fully explored from a system perspective.

Background

The basic idea behind the use of risk/needs assessments in front-end decision making is that scarce criminal justice resources can be reserved specifically for those defendants who pose the greatest risk to public safety.
The first major reforms began in the field of community supervision with the implementation of evidence-based practices (EBPs) designed to address the underlying causes of criminal behavior and to ultimately reduce recidivism. Only within the last 5 to 7 years has the research and the concept of EBPs begun to inform criminal case processing at the front end of the system—arrest, pretrial diversion and supervision, prosecution, and sentencing.

The basic idea behind the use of risk/needs assessments in front-end decision making is that scarce criminal justice resources can be reserved specifically for those defendants who pose the greatest risk to public safety. Moreover, by identifying defendants’ criminogenic needs earlier in the case processing continuum, the justice system can apply the EBPs that have been shown to be most effective in changing behavior.

Applied consistently at each decision point along the case processing continuum, the use of risk/needs assessments and EBPs has the potential to

  • Significantly reform the criminal justice system;
  • Improve public safety outcomes;
  • Reduce justice system costs;
  • Decrease the misuse and overuse of incarceration; and
  • Substantially curtail the collateral consequences of conviction, particularly for low-risk offenders.

A number of jurisdictions throughout the country have started applying EBPs at various points throughout the system. Although the adoption of gold- and silver-standard EBPs to address offenders’ criminogenic needs has a strong theoretical foundation for producing the desired outcomes; there is no research that demonstrates how the application of EBPs throughout the case processing continuum influences reliance on costly jails as a primary sanction or reductions in jail populations. Indeed, there has been no assessment of what a local criminal justice system would look like with EBPs in use at each point along the case processing continuum, and more importantly, what factors provide the foundation for the greatest likelihood of success in reducing jail populations and improving justice system outcomes overall.

Understanding How EBPs Improve Justice Systems Overall

Using a multi-site case study approach, JMI will document what is working in 8 local criminal justice systems from around the country and pattern-matching to identify common factors across systems.
In response to this research gap as well as the growing need/desire among local jurisdictions to improve case processing and curb the expensive expansion of their jail populations, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (MacArthur Foundation) has rightly focused its attention on reform at the front end of the criminal justice system—and specifically on the front-end strategies that can reduce counties’ misuse and overuse of jails.

With funds from MacArthur, JMI will be identifying what the common factors are across jurisdictions that reduce jail populations, produce cost-savings, improve public safety, and increase efficiencies in the administration of justice overall. Using a multi-site case study approach, JMI will document what is working in 8 local criminal justice systems from around the country and pattern-matching to identify common factors across systems. The results of this assessment will help inform the broader justice reform community as it sets out to effect system improvement in local jurisdictions throughout the country.

The study will answer three critical questions about local criminal justice system reform in the area of jail population reduction (including both pretrial and adjudicated/sentenced populations as well as the population of offenders in jail for revocations):

  1. What is a high-functioning criminal justice system, and what outcomes can be expected from such a system?
  2. What are the key factors that drive outcome attainment?
  3. What would a “model” local criminal justice system look like?

For questions about this JMI Initiative, please contact Elaine Borakove at elainen@jmijustice.org or (703) 940-0323.

Franklin CruzHigh-Functioning Criminal Justice Systems