How Is Our Criminal Justice System Broken?

05/15/2017 11:53 am ET
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What are the most critical ways our criminal justice system is broken? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Jennifer Doleac, founder of the Justice Tech Lab and an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of Virginia, on Quora:

The criminal justice system involves a broad array of interactions and processes, including: policing and arrest, bail and pre-trial detention, legal representation, plea bargains and (sometimes) jury trials, sentencing, juvenile detention, incarceration (including any rehabilitation programs, mental health treatment, and so on), re-entry support (or lack thereof), court fees and fines, and probation and parole. You can probably think of others. Almost all of these aspects of the system could be improved, and it’s a bit overwhelming to think about how inefficiencies and injustices accumulate from one step to the next.

There is one theme connecting all of the problems in the criminal justice system: a lack of attention to research evidence in policy-making and practice.

Too often, the research we need to guide policy simply does not exist: the relevant data either aren’t collected or aren’t shared (even across departments within a city!), or programs are implemented in a way that makes rigorous evaluation impossible (for instance, cherry-picking participants based on their likelihood of success, or implementing a program city-wide all at once instead of rolling it out more gradually). Other policy areas, such as education, are years ahead of the criminal justice system in this regard.

Most practitioners are doing the best they can with limited resources and don’t see evaluation as a priority for their day-to-day work. But some actively choose not to evaluate their programs because they worry that negative results would make them look bad. There are lots of theories and “best practices” developed by academics and practitioners over the years, but relatively few have been rigorously tested. Advocates and funders tend to perpetuate this status quo, pushing to do something (anything!) to demonstrate momentum and relevance. But we won’t know if we’re moving in the right direction unless we evaluate the programs we’re implementing and measure their impacts.

In this policy area more than most, we need leaders who are humble, and who want to figure out what’s working and what isn’t as quickly as possible. That’s the only way we’ll make the system work better.

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