Cover: Fostering Innovation Across the U.S. Criminal Justice System

Fostering Innovation Across the U.S. Criminal Justice System

Identifying Opportunities to Improve Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Fairness

Published Mar 23, 2020

by Brian A. Jackson, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Kristin J. Leuschner, Dulani Woods, John S. Hollywood, Duren Banks, Sean E. Goodison, Joe Russo, Shoshana R. Shelton

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Research Questions

  1. What overarching challenges were identified by panel participants?
  2. What innovative solutions were identified by participants to address these challenges?

The three central sections of the criminal justice system—law enforcement, the courts, and corrections agencies—work together toward the common goal of addressing the challenge of criminal behavior. Because of the wide variety of issues and incidents to which the criminal justice system responds, the system faces many challenges. Such challenges include new types of technological crime facing the police; new demands complicating court operations; and, in the corrections context, such practical challenges as managing aging offender populations and dealing with drones used to smuggle contraband over prison walls. Moreover, as society changes, the challenges facing the criminal justice system can be expected to continue to shift.

In this report, the authors focus on common needs that apply to all three sections of the justice system. Starting with the deep pool of feedback and input collected from the practitioner community across the five-year Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative project, the authors abstracted insights about innovation needs for the justice system as a whole.

Key Findings

Participants identified several challenges that come from changes in society as a whole

  • New digital crimes present problems for agencies that were designed to operate in the physical rather than the digital world.
  • In many cases, the justice system has become the default mental health and substance abuse response system in the country.
  • A lack of public trust can affect criminal justice agencies' success by reducing the willingness of the public to work with them.
  • The perceived fairness of the justice system—that is, whether the system is procedurally just and whether individuals of different races or from different socioeconomic strata are treated fairly—is an important issue.

Participants also found changes that originate within the justice system

  • The justice system is decentralized, which can have serious implications for innovation.
  • New technologies and tactics—including those designed to assist in criminal justice activities—can pose significant challenges for criminal justice agencies.
  • Law enforcement and corrections practitioners cited continued issues with body armor, other protective equipment, and vehicles. They also described a need for more-effective, predictable, and less lethal weapons to give officers more options short of resorting to deadly force.
  • Agencies across the justice system described difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. Furthermore, the stress and mental demands of justice system roles are a major staff safety concern.
  • Across the criminal justice system, participants cited resource shortages as an enduring challenge.


  • Assess training materials for investigating crimes involving digital evidence and make recommendations for improvements.
  • Invite researchers and industry organizations to produce materials that raise the level of public awareness and increase the amount of context that the public and politicians have access to on police misconduct.
  • Conduct research and develop measures to assess the effectiveness of different modes, methods, quality, and types of procedural justice training tools.
  • Create governance structures that limit the level of autonomy that elected judges can have in customizing technological systems for their courtrooms to reduce the chance that, by attempting to meet the needs of multiple stakeholders, the resulting products will not work well and threaten data quality and system viability.
  • Continue federal efforts to research and evaluate correctional programs that work and can be broadly implemented to help agencies invest limited budgets for innovation.
  • Design court information systems with backup capabilities and prioritize technology support to focus on restoring critical systems when they go down. Develop response plans to address technology failures.
  • Assess the adequacy of resources for mental health response and treatment at the regional or lower levels, along with the implications of the current situation on law enforcement.
  • Implement a true justice reinvestment model to provide agencies with access to a pool of funds to pay the start-up costs for new evidence-based practices or programs.

Research conducted by

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. It was conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being, in partnership with the Police Executive Research Forum, RTI International, and the University of Denver.

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