We often hear variations of the word “failure” used in the context of criminal justice. There are our “failed” state prisons that spit out inmates who are much more likely than not to return to prison. The parole department and sheriff’s deputies’ “failure” to monitor Philip Garrido and find the compound housing Jaycee Lee Duggard and their children. If a major crime happens, there’s been failure–failure to protect the public, failure to prepare law enforcement, failure of command staff to anticipate and prepare for a tragedy. The public, the media, and politicians simply do not tolerate failures in systems where the stakes are so high. But does that obsession with high-profile collapses prevent those who make policy decisions from actually correcting what went wrong?
The new book “Daring to Fail” by the Center for Court Innovation takes a look at this idea of failure in criminal justice, but with a twist. The book is a series of interviews with criminal justice luminaries who all, to varying degrees, embrace failure. Embrace it, that is, by changing its definition. To explain what that means, here are a few excerpts that illustrate where the book is going with this whole “daring to fail” thing.
First up, we fear “failure” but what does success actually mean?
“There’s a long history of over-promising and under-delivering that has contributed to the constant pendulum swings in punishment practices.” -Stanford Professor Joan Petersilia
Joan Petersilia, one of the preeminent criminologists in the country and a frequent advisor to those in power, says “failure,” in the sense of media debacle, sometimes happens because law enforcement, prison officials, and those who operate rehabilitation programs oversell their own importance and awesomeness. “There’s nothing in our history of over 100 years of reform,” Petersilia continues, “that says we know how to reduce recidivism by more than 15 or 20 percent. And to achieve those rather modest outcomes, you have to get everything right – the right staff, delivering the right program, at the right time in the offender’s life, and in a supportive community environment. We just have to be more honest about that, and my sense is that we have not been publicly forthcoming because we’ve assumed that we would not win public support with modest results.”
Next, how can we learn from our mistakes if no one’s keeping track of them?
“It’s incredible that our society funds abundant research on things like tooth decay but can’t adequately fund research on public safety.” -Bill Bratton, former chief of the NYPD and most recently, the LAPD.
“I’ve noticed what’s almost a commercial interest in selling people on research-based models.” -John Goldkamp, professor at Temple University