Organized collaboration is foundational to successful reforms

By: Aimee Wickman

Community Engagement Interagency Collaboration Jail Populations July 29, 2015

Bringing about change in criminal justice systems takes the concerted effort of all system actors. Such an ambitious undertaking can be greatly facilitated by charging a coordinating body with opening lines of communication, building collaborative interagency relationships, and creating a shared vision and blueprint for meaningful reform. A criminal justice coordinating council (CJCC) is the general term used to describe such bodies. CJCCs are comprised of elected and appointed senior justice system leaders who convene on a regular basis to coordinate systemic responses to justice problems. They also often serve as an effective means to reduce duplication of effort and conflicting practices and improve how local jurisdictions allocate limited justice system resources.

CJCCs began emerging as early as the 1970s to help forge systemic responses to specific problems facing local jurisdictions. Since then, jurisdictions all over the country have either created CJCCs because of jail population issues directly or have made jail population a major focus of their work through establishing a dedicated subcommittee. While jail overcrowding seems like a very specific problem to solve and then move on from, it is actually a systemic condition that needs continual consideration. As the National Institute of Corrections’ former director Morris Thigpen stated in a seminal publication on CJCCs, “[W]hat a community was treating as solely a ‘jail problem’ was, instead, a system wide condition requiring an intergovernmental and interagency response.”

A few examples from across the nation illustrate the impact that a CJCC can have on jail population over time:

In Jefferson County, Kentucky (Louisville), a local commission has been working on jail crowding issues since the 1980s. Because of its early efforts and decision to focus on alternative programs instead of jail expansion, the commission was able to delay adding jail beds, reduce the total population, and implement a number of successful programs over the years. These programs include the creation and expansion of electronic monitoring including GPS, a day reporting center, a Misdemeanant Intensive Probation Program, screening and post-booking diversion programs targeting individuals with serious and persistent mental illness, problem-solving courts, pretrial supervision, and initiatives to expedite case processing.

Clinton County, Iowa originally formed the Clinton County Justice Coordinating Commission (CCJCC) in response to jail overcrowding, with the goal to better manage the jail population and improve data collection and analysis. Although its efforts did not eliminate the need for a new jail, the CCJCC was able to substantially reduce the associated cost. A needs assessment found that Clinton County saved millions of dollars in avoided construction costs and even more in reduced operational costs because they were able to build a jail with 22 percent fewer beds.  According to Clinton County Sheriff Rick Lincoln, they were able to achieve this because they “identified the offender population that we are just mad at but who aren’t dangerous to society,” such as “those individuals that have been convicted of a misdemeanor type of crime without a victim, such as public intoxication.” He also explained that they are no longer using jail beds for reasons such as non-payment of fines.

Denver, Colorado reduced its jail population by more than 500 people per day since 2009, due in large part to the efforts of the Crime Prevention and Control Commission. The commission’s many initiatives—such as drug court, sobriety court, a jail diversion program, reentry program, and increased use of pretrial supervision—were born of its hard work providing the data to show what was needed; designing and fundraising for the programs; and ongoing quality control and evaluation of the impact of their programs.

In Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, the CJCC is dedicated to the development of multidisciplinary strategies to prevent jail overcrowding and improve criminal justice system effectiveness.  Through initiatives started within the CJCC, such as the implementation of their pre-charge diversion program and the National Institute of Corrections’ Evidence-Based Decision-Making initiative, jail is imposed as a condition of probation only as a last resort. Also, because of another CJCC initiative—the Community Transition Center (CTC)—Eau Claire County saved more than 17,000 jail bed days in 2014 and has had a significant impact on recidivism rates, with less than 30% of offenders who were sentenced to the CTC receiving new criminal charges within one year of successfully completing programming.

What is it about a CJCC that makes these examples of change possible?  While not all CJCCs are alike—nor should they be—they can each provide a foundation for partnerships in the criminal justice system and help to inspire communication, cooperation, and a collaborative effort towards system improvement.  To learn more about the factors that create local justice systems that prioritize the improvement of administrating justice, we analyzed eight counties that have been cited as having “highly effective” local justice systems in a new report, From Silo to System: What Makes a Criminal Justice System Operate Like a System?. We found that among the successful systems, a culture of collaboration was one of the main characteristics they shared. From a foundation of collaboration, lasting systemwide change is within reach.

More information and resources on CJCCs can be found on the National Network of Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils’ website.