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What Courts Can Learn From Failure

The criminal justice system is a work in progress. At any given time in any given court system around the country, you are likely to find an experimental project aimed at reducing recidivism or better managing drug cases or crafting alternatives to incarceration. When these experiments return positive results, their proponents are quick to tout their success. But what of the experiments that fail? Should they simply be swept under the carpet?

A program launched earlier this year by the The Center for Court Innovation, the independent research arm of the New York court system, and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance is focusing on studying these failures and encouraging a conversation about what the criminal justice system can learn from its mistakes. In a recent news bulletin, the center's executive director, Greg Berman, explained:

"[We] set out to jump-start just this kind of conversation, bringing together judges, probation officials, prosecutors, police chiefs and defense attorneys from across the country to discuss lessons they have learned from projects that did not succeed. These projects included efforts to change the behavior of prostitutes, promote drug treatment for addicts, and strengthen the supervision of probationers. The goal of discussing these initiatives was to send the message that failure, while not desirable, is sometimes inevitable and even acceptable, provided that it is properly analyzed and used as a learning experience."

The conversation kicked off with a roundtable discussion last January among 19 judges, court administrators, probation officials, prosecutors, police chiefs, defense attorneys and others. (A summary of the discussion and transcript is here.) Based on the roundtable and other research, Berman and two others then produced a "red paper" that further explored the topic, "Trial and Error: Failure and Innovation in Criminal Justice Reform." In his bulletin this month (which I received by e-mail and cannot find online), Berman writes that the process has so far provided four lessons about learning from failure:

  1. Context matters. The causes of a project's failure are too complex to yield easy generalizations, he says. What works in one setting might prove disastrous in another.
  2. The right people need to be at the table. Many projects fail because of agency leaders formulating decisions in a vacuum, without relevant information that could be provided by rank-and-file staff or local residents. At the same time, over-inclusiveness can cripple a program.
  3. Many failures can be traced back to a lack of self-analysis. "It all adds up to a fine balancing act," Berman writes, "innovators must aggressively market their ideas and galvanize crucial allies without sacrificing introspection."
  4. The definition of failure depends upon where you stand. What police see as success, for example, may be seen as failure by prosecutors and judges.

No one likes to admit to failure, especially not those who work in the public eye. But the people involved in this program deserve credit for recognizing that the criminal justice system can learn from its mistakes as well as its successes.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 22, 2007 at 06:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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