The role of local institutions in the criminal justice reform debate

The truth of the common quip “all politics is local” has seemingly eroded in the last several years. The modern method of consuming news means our collective attention is squarely aimed at the actors we can all recognize or the systems which we are all familiar. We are less informed and less engaged in the issues in our own community. But whether or not the public is engaged, the American political system hinges on decentralized power spread over millions of jurisdictions. This is especially true of the criminal justice system. woman writting on boardDespite what is taught in high school civics classes, the justice system is not a single body or multiple bodies under a clear hagiarchy. Police, prisons, jails, public defenders, prosecutors, the judiciary, and the various ancillary services all operate independently with virtually no meaningful oversight or coordinated direction from a higher body. Each, however, can affect what justice looks likes in a community.

For local justice system officials, the meaning of policy or programmatic change is not theoretical. Most justice actors know the problems in their communities intimately and know the people they serve. They see people at their most vulnerable, and often they have repeat contact with the same person or the same family because of failures of the system. They are on the front lines of public health issues like treatment for mental health issues or a drug crisis. Local actors also directly implement any policy change and their methods shape outcomes. There is nothing abstract about change on the local level.

But local officials are also charged with the day-to-day operations of government. Their days are filled with pressing but often very technical, mundane issues. They are strapped for time, money, and access to the latest tools and research. This is why federally supported state and local training and technical assistance is so important. Training and technical assistance provides the space for state and local officials to step back from the daily administration and troubleshooting to analyze systematic challenges and successes. It is a time to have conversations between departments that have been historically opposed to each other in pursuit of the same goal. It is an opportunity to learn about new tools and best practices and strategize organizational change.

Like most folks who come to Washington, D.C. for professional opportunities, I dreamed about working on large-scale policy change in some way. I quickly became frustrated, however, with theoretical discussions and the distance I felt from the outcomes for communities. At the Justice Programs Office, I began work on the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court Training and Technical Assistance Initiative, funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). This initiative offers a chance to collaborate with individual courts on the implementation of OJJDP’s recommended best practices for juvenile drug treatment programs. It is so rewarding to develop practical solutions that are responsive to real challenges and real communities. I enjoy working with local officials who ground the discussions of change in reality and feasibility as they will actually be responsible for the execution of any change. But the most significant thing about implementing change on the local level, are the lives affected as a direct result. Measuring outcomes is one thing, but being able to name a kid who is in recovery from a substance use disorder because he got the right mental health treatment makes it meaningful.

Obviously, reform at every level of government is impactful. But as public awareness increasingly focuses on federal change, I would like to caution against ignoring those who directly work with communities, our local leaders. Local systems hold a lot of power over citizens’ lives and I still believe that most true change, the change that betters people’s lives, is accomplished at the local level.