Saturday, March 15, 2008

Failure

The highlight of my week was a trip to Atlanta to moderate a panel on failure at a conference organized by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The idea behind the panel was to look at criminal justice reform efforts that have failed to live up to expectations -- and to extract lessons that might be of value to would-be innovators. The panel is part of a multi-faceted policy inquiry that we've been working on with the help of BJA. When all is said and done, the inquiry will include roundtables, white papers, toolkits, materials on the web and more.

Anyway, the reason why the Atlanta conference was such a highlight was that I was joined by three great panelists: Liz Glazer from the NY State Attorney General's Office, David Kennedy of John Jay College and Bob Keating of the NY State Judicial Institute. All three brought their own unique perspective to the panel. Having been the top criminal justice official in New York City during the Koch administration, Bob talked about the role that politics inevitably plays in determining the success or failure of any new idea. David, who has been the driving force behind well-publicized efforts to curb drug crime and gang violence in cities across the US, debunked several common myths, including the notion that the best way to implement a project is by "getting all the stakeholders at the table." And Liz, who has been a prosecutor at the federal and local level, talked about the difficulty that criminal justice agencies have in acknowledging failure and the need for long-term cultural change before this can happen on a regular basis.

At the start of the panel, I explained that our motivation for taking a deeper look at failure was to send a message that it is impossible to have trial without error and that failure can be an important stepping stone to success. This message was articulated much more eloquently by one of my favorite Nike commercials featuring Michael Jordan, which can be found here.

I can't speak for the audience, which included hundreds of police officials, prosecutors, probation officers, court managers and others from across the south, but I know I learned a lot from the panel.

As an aside, I encourage you to check out David's article "Pulling Levers," which is arguably one of the most influential academic articles to be written about criminal justice over the past decade or so.