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Quattrone Center report outlines systems-based model for criminal justice reform

June 30, 2014

The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, a research center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has published the report, “A Systems Approach to Errors in Criminal Justice,” which explores ways in which a systems approach to criminal justice may be employed as an alternative to a case-by case litigation model of reform.

The report details the requirements for the successful application of a systems approach, including more rigorous and data-driven analyses of the criminal justice system and the design, testing, dissemination and implementation of successful best practices that will improve the fair administration of justice.

“By looking at criminal justice as a complex system in need of optimization, we can create a collaborative model in which researchers and criminal justice professionals partner to implement and evaluate best practices in an evolving and expanding way,” said John Hollway, Executive Director of the Center. “The report highlights how an academic center at a large, interdisciplinary research university may collaborate with all parties to create a ‘virtuous cycle’ of criminal justice improvement.”

Even casual observers of the American criminal justice system are becoming increasingly aware of errors that occur in the investigation, prosecution, or adjudication of crimes. These errors occur despite the best intentions of thousands of conscientious police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges across the country. They result in inappropriate injury to the innocent and to society, unwelcome reputational damage to law enforcement, and unacceptable windfalls to the actual criminal actors, whose crimes go unpunished.

A wrongful conviction is a catastrophic, often multifaceted error that can be thought of as similar to accidents in other industries (such as a surgical error in healthcare, or a plane crash in aviation). The interdisciplinary, data-driven approaches currently being deployed to reduce errors in these fields hold much promise when applied to the criminal justice system. Such approaches rely on a culture of disclosure of errors and “near-misses,” encourage the development of non-punitive and objective assessments of causes of error, generate novel metrics for the improved analysis of system activities, and carefully implement process improvements to achieve substantive goals.

“A Systems Approach to Reducing Error in Criminal Justice” suggests both near- and long-term strategies for achieving systems-based reform. First, the report identifies a novel model for collaboration and convening, unifying participants across a justice system that is by design adversarial around an objective shared by all: the increased reliability and integrity of investigations, prosecutions, and adjudications, and the elimination of errors – both known and currently unknown – that undermine the fair administration of justice. 

Second, the report recommends a new framework for data collection and dissemination so that new insights, topic areas, and best practices are more readily published, shared, and understood by participants in the criminal justice systems

“The Center seeks to bring scholars and practitioners together in a neutral forum to learn about the topics and issues that are creating errors, and from there we will partner with individual jurisdictions to conceive, implement, and evaluate best practices that reduce those errors,” added Hollway. “In doing so, we’ll not only be developing a systems approach but also build over time a larger and larger data set, which can then be made available to all participating jurisdictions for the benefit of all.”

Based on the report’s findings, the Quattrone Center convened its inaugural symposium, which took place in the spring and convened key stakeholders and participants in the criminal justice system - including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and law enforcement officials – as well as leading experts from other fields, such as aviation, healthcare, and industrial design, to explore how a systems approach may reduce instances of catastrophic error.

Founded in 2013, the Quattrone Center is a national research and policy hub created by Penn Law to catalyze long-term structural improvements to the US criminal justice system through data-driven policy research. The Center builds on Penn Law’s unsurpassed reputation for generating interdisciplinary legal scholarship. Its 10 centers and institutes expand and integrate knowledge across disciplines, attracting scholars and experts from around Penn and across the globe.