Justice Reform Under Trump: Some Good News?

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U.S. Department of Justice. Photo by Matt Churchill via Flickr

For those wondering whether any meaningful justice reforms are likely under the Trump administration, here’s one encouraging—but little noticed—development.

Last week, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the Justice Department, announced it was seeking proposals to provide “technical assistance” to scale up its six-year-old pilot Sentinel Events Initiative (SEI) to as many as 25 cities or counties around the country.

The dry language of the announcement belies its significance.

The project, according to the NIJ, is aimed at the “development, implementation and routinization of non-blaming, forward-looking, multi-stakeholder reviews” that are intended to “identify systemic weaknesses” in the administration of justice.

Translation: the NIJ wants to help justice systems at the local level explore ways to examine the mistakes that often trigger outraged headlines—a wrongful conviction, a police shooting, a crime committed by an individual under justice supervision—with the objective of identifying (and correcting) the flaws or missteps that produced those tragic events.

Such mistakes are usually not one-off errors, but indicators (“sentinel events”) of deeper and more entrenched problems or patterns of behavior.

Each of the sites selected for the expanded program will identify an event or set of events for examination, and conduct an exhaustive review of what led to it. Similar reviews already occur in many forms around the country, whether through Conviction Integrity Units established by prosecutors or police civilian complaint boards.

The difference is that all the institutions or agencies which have played a part in the individual event as well as, in some cases, representatives of communities affected by the event, will conduct this exhausting and often wrenching self-examination together.

In a system like ours, which is built in silos—jails, courts, cops, prosecutors, public defenders, all pursuing their separate ends—that’s a transformative idea.

The Crime Report has been covering the Sentinel Events process since it was launched in 2011 and then expanded in 2014 as a pilot project in three cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia and Milwaukee—along with a short booklet called “Mending Justice”, a collection of essays by leading criminologists and practitioners under the imprimatur of then-Attorney General Eric Holder.

The premise is simple. When awful things happen, it’s easy—and tempting—to blame an individual (the cop who fired the gun, the over-eager prosecutor who failed to introduce exculpatory evidence). But such finger-pointing is almost always guaranteed to ensure the same mistake will occur again, in one way or the other.

That’s why the worlds of aviation and medicine, for instance, have long since introduced processes to discover the root causes of tragic mistakes like an airplane crash or a bungled surgery. By getting everyone who had a stake in the decision-making into the same room, the smaller errors or oversights that led to a tragedy can be identified and, possibly, corrected.

Applying this to U.S. justice isn’t easy. Our “system” is a really a set of institutions in towns and cities across America that cooperate in widely diverse political and socio-economic environments. And many of the key players are either reluctant or too time-challenged to engage in the kind of self-examination that might result in meaningful changes.

“As justice system professionals, we are deceiving ourselves if we think our decisions and actions are infallible,” Holder observed in his forward to “Mending Justice.”

The pilot “Beta” projects in the three cities have demonstrated, however, that given a chance, prosecutors, public defenders, sheriffs, police chiefs and any of the other players at local levels, are in fact open to sitting down together and figuring out what went wrong.

The initial responses were enough to persuade the powers-that-be that the idea is worth taking to the next stage by expanding it to more cities.

Last week’s announcement, appealing for applicants for the $1.6 million in funding made available to support technical direction, was not a foregone conclusion, given the impression created by our new leaders that any ideas produced under the former administration were, by definition, scrap-able.

Eric Holder supported this? Forget about it.

But Washington’s green light for this makes sense when you think about it. “Sentinel Event Reviews” are targeted at the critical actors in our federal system, where most “justice” gets done: states, cities, jails, police departments. That happens to conform to the prevailing ideology of empowering local authorities, and lifting the heavy hand of Washington: No federal consent reviews here.

And it, like many of the most forwarding looking justice reform ideas currently under discussion around the country, not only builds on bipartisanship; it requires it.

A good illustration of that came last week, when a small group of people came together at NIJ headquarters in Washington to discuss the Sentinel Review process so far. They included police chiefs, mayors, district attorneys, community advocates, police union officials, public defenders and even crime victims. They were Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives; and they came from every corner of the country.

The one thing they had in common was frustration: For all their good intentions, the systems they were operating in or managed as professionals continued to produce bad results. A loss of community confidence and public trust and, just as significantly, a reduction in public safety (or perceptions of it) was inescapable.

The meeting was held off the record to allow the participants to speak freely—and they did. At times they employed the same rhetoric we’re more accustomed to hearing from angry protesters.

“So many times I’ve seen prosecutors (ignore) their moral compass,” said one, who explained the sheer burden of caseloads led not only prosecutors but judges, public defenders and others to overlook details in the rush to judgment that has driven mass incarceration levels in the U.S.

As part of the meeting, the attendees participated in some model “Sentinel Event” reviews to become comfortable with the practice.

And some of the critical issues at the heart of the tragedies that have made ugly headlines became apparent:

  • The drawbacks of the current justice “culture” in which decisions, and the responsibility for making them, are kicked down the line;
  • The ease with which small inaccuracies in record-keeping and failures in communication can produce fatal mistakes.

The key to the process is that there is no single template or model for how to conduct these examinations. It’s up to each jurisdiction to decide who gets to sit in the room, and how to apply the lessons learned.

A lot of issues will need to be worked out. How transparent should the process be? What role does the media play? Will Sentinel Events reviews allow the “bad apples” in the system to escape blame for what they did? Will they co-opt community activists who are determined to hold accountable the individuals or institutions responsible for errors?

How will they affect disciplinary measures or the rights of those seeking damages for misconduct in lawsuits?

The jury is still out. But supporters of the concept assure those worried about taking a “soft” approach to official misconduct that a Sentinel Event Review is not intended to remove individual accountability.

What’s clear at least from last week’s announcement is that the decision to scale up the Sentinel Events concept provides evidence of a willingness to think differently about our justice system.

That’s refreshing.

And worth watching.

Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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