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Understanding systems

So here you are, at another reentry coalition meeting, everybody finally finds a seat, the meeting opens and after all the introductions are made someone eventually offers up their opinion that “the system is broken”. I’ve heard this so many times over the past 30 years. There was a time not too long ago that I use to nod my head in agreement with this assessment until I realized that my brain was in neutral. This was an incredibly over-simplistic statement with terms that are not well defined. This was like saying “People will be people”…. What does that mean???

Another observation I made was that nobody in the room would, or will ever, call attention to this undefined statement because that would imply that you think everything is fine and dandy with the system. Asking for clarification has somehow become negative and invites all sorts of labeling.

So at the risk of being labeled by people being people – let’s take a look at this statement and see if we can define what we mean by the term “system” and perhaps even the term “broken”.

When we’re talking about the criminal justice system we need to ask ourselves if we are referring to state, federal or county systems. All three are very different and operate somewhat independently. Think about it – there are 3,144 counties in the United States and each one runs their own system. There are 50 state systems that differ from each other and then the largest single system, the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Within each of these systems, you have police, sheriffs, state patrols, parole, probation, community supervision, courts, judges, prosecutors, defenders, task forces, DEA, FBI, US Marshalls, work release, prisons, halfway houses and on and on..

Now if we use the term “broken” in reference to the system, what part of the system are you referring to? Even if you believe all of it is broken let’s at least be able to have a conversation that uses well-defined terms and then perhaps focus on specifics that are unique to each system. This might eliminate a few people who use this statement but those that are left just might be able to not only identify specifics but also get to work on bringing solutions. Perhaps this is one reason why we’ve seen so little progress over the years. People get involved with this simplistic view of the problem and then soon realize that it’s a whole lot bigger than they imagined.

One way that this vast system within a system reveals itself is when we begin looking at the prison population within a state. The flow into prisons is driven more by county-level factors than state-level ones. Local county politics, prosecutors, incentives, and police departments have more to do with the population than anything at the state level. If it’s more than a year and a day, the state incarcerates them. Less than a year and a day and the county houses them along with everybody in custody waiting for charges, sentencing or trial. The national number for this category is somewhere around 700,000.

So, you say the system is broken and we need to fix it. I'm inclined to agree if you can give me specifics and you've thought through what you're going to fix and how you're going to do it. I'm all in! If not, you’re just one more person at a public meeting wanting to hear their own voice………. people being people.

(for a great read on this topic check out Locked In by John Pfaff)

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