Want Justice Reform? Try Adopting Common ‘Values’

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Sculptural Group by Daniel Chester French. Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr

Nearly everyone involved in the administration and practice of U.S. justice agrees that the system badly needs to change, so why has reform seemed like an uphill struggle?

The answer, according to a report on a symposium at  American University released this week, is the lack of national consensus on the critical “values” necessary to transform a system that has over 18,000 separate moving parts—the number of independent jurisdictions in the U.S. that operate the nation’s courts, prisons and jails.

“We all see ourselves as separate, but we are not,” Anne Milgrim, former New Jersey Attorney General told experts and practitioners who attended the December, 2018 symposium. “We are all one system…an enterprise system with no CEO.

“Nobody is in charge. Everybody operates in their own silos.”

Milgrim made clear she wasn’t proposing a new oversight body or justice czar, parallel to the federal attorney general —a concept likely to have little traction in a country where the independence of local governments who answer directly to taxpayers is cherished.

Instead, the diverse components of the system might agree on some general principles governing reform that could be applied in the state, county and municipal systems where the majority of Americans become involved with the justice system.

That was the overall conclusion of participants in the December symposium, who came up with a set of 10 “transformational system values” that could bring depth, energy and consistency to the multitude of reform efforts around the country.

“There was consensus around the need to have a foundation that embraces values of equality, fairness and safety,” said Vicky Wilson, dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs, in her introduction to the report.

“Our hope is to go beyond our conversation on campus and…garner broad support for adoption of this agenda by experts in the field.”

The values set by the symposium are not likely to surprise any reform advocate, since they reflect much of the nationwide conversation over the past decade about how to repair a $270 billion system which reformers across the political spectrum consider “broken.”

However, putting them together in a single foundational credo might make generate the traction and political support that often lags behind the creative ideas of reform advocates, the symposium participants believe.

The proposed values comprised:

  • Ensuring equality in the administration of justice;
  • Making public safety the centerpiece goal;
  • Requiring all components of the system, from police to courts, to adapt inclusiveness and diversity in their hiring practices’
  • Focusing on behavioral and mental health issues;
  • Tying reforms to evidence-based research;
  • Prioritizing community collaboration and partnerships;
  • Respecting the needs of victims of crime;
  • Holding leaders at every level accountable for their actions;
  • Provide sufficient resources for both innovations and research;
  • Developing in-service education and training.

A few suggested a more radical approach, like changing the name.

“We always speak of improving the criminal justice system..,but what we really need to do is transform it into a system that provides equal, unbiased justice for all,” Domingo Herraiz, director of programs for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, told the conference.

“A good place to start is to change its name: Drop the ‘criminal’ and just call it ‘justice system’—criminals are only one part of what this system is all about.”

But no matter what they are called, the criminal justice systems around the country could benefit from a cross-disciplinary dialogue aimed at “breaking down silos,” symposium participants argued.

“We need to find ways to have a better data-sharing system in place,” said Sim Singh, director of the Sikh Coalition in Washington DC.

While each jurisdiction is likely to interpret and apply the shared values in locally appropriate ways, participants appeared to believe there is a greater likelihood that sharing the overall goals will make the hard choices involved in transforming individual components of the system more feasible—and politically palatable.

The symposium focused in particular on police, courts and corrections as examples of how shared goals could help in “breaking down silos.”

“If we are really serious about speeding the pace of reform, then we need to start thinking outside the box about how we can make changes that bring about better efficiency (and) better effectiveness,” said Richard Bennett, a professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs Department of Justice, Law and Criminology.

“And let’s make sure they are realistic.”

Read the full report on the symposium here.

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