Leading a whole-system approach to criminal justice

Criminal justice leaders around the world are trying to build more integrated systems, but implementing such an approach is intensely challenging. Here’s how they can achieve it.

Criminal justice is often seen as a legal or administrative matter. But the circumstances that lead to crime are very human—intimate, messy, and complex. The consequences are no less multi-dimensional.

Preventing crime, ensuring justice, and supporting desistance (i.e., rehabilitation) are therefore not things that criminal justice agencies can do alone. Even coordinating a criminal investigation and successful prosecution is a multi-agency endeavour.

Leaders at all levels of criminal justice systems are increasingly aware they need to do more than simply improve existing processes if their goal is to elevate experiences and perceptions of justice and fairness; any reforms and innovations must take into account what citizens want and need from their justice system. Innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic has given them a glimpse of what is possible—such as courts implementing remote hearings and prisons enabling virtual visits using secure video technology—when they work together with organizations other than their own in a whole-system approach.

This type of approach can help overcome issues posed by adversarial legal traditions, legal separation of powers, distinct professional identities, rigid funding arrangements, and other challenges that result from specific organizational structures and processes.

Implementing such a system is intricate and complicated. Our experience suggests that success requires taking specific, mission-critical steps. This paper outlines a practical five-ingredient framework for successful criminal justice system reform:

  1. Build the coalition: cultivate relationships, trust, and leadership.
  2. Develop systems insights and focus: take a local-user view to understand critical boundaries and system dynamics.
  3. Plan for impact: experiment and build confidence through bold plays.
  4. Align for impact: align objectives, budgets, and incentives for peak effectiveness.
  5. Stay and adapt the course: foster adaptability and leadership continuity.

The article also shares seven examples of best practices from around the world, to inspire confidence that the goal is reachable.

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