Ten Tips for Criminal Justice System Development

by Piet Biesheuvel · February 4th, 2016.

Criminal Justice System (CJS) development is a complicated and complex endeavour[1] to undertake. Rather than being a single, unified sector, it is more sensible to understand it as a series of related and mutually dependent systems composed of a number of different agencies and institutions, each of which has its own rationales, work cultures, and formal and informal principles. As a result, each body responds to a distinctive set of incentives and develops at its own, separate pace, although one that needs to be integrated into and is reliant on the greater whole. Strengthening one link in the CJS chain in isolation merely creates pressures and fractures elsewhere. With this understanding comes the need to embrace the complexity of working across multiple institutions and at multiple levels.

There is no magic bullet to delivering a more effective and more accountable criminal justice system; long term engagement, well targeted political influence, flexible programming and resilience to set-backs are all needed if sustainable impact is to be achieved. But since I’ve been asked, here are ten tips that may assist in developing the criminal justice sector.

  1. Make sure you understand the complexity of the CJS and the complicated but essential relationships between the various actors. It’s far more complicated than just ‘cops, courts and corrections’. If you can’t identify at least ten different institutions, you’ve not done your homework. 
  2. Work across all the identified institutions, seeking opportunities to strengthen existing linkages and improve communication, coordination and mutual trust between all the agencies involved. Remember: horizontal linkages good, isolated vertical capacity building bad! 
  3. Do not focus on the CJS institutions in isolation of the people who use their services e.g. victims & accused persons. By just working with the institutions there is a danger of producing a supply driven solution, which may be no solution at all.
  4. Use civil society and other non-government groups to ensure approaches are relevant and meet the needs of everyone. Relationships are complex and dynamic and need continual assessment.
  5. Coordination meetings involving all actors, including representative groups for court users, need to be established. They can deal with specific isolated CJS problems or operate at a higher and more strategic level.
  6. Identify blockages within the CJS – either through examination of individual cases or by reviewing prisoners held on remand in custody. Justice delayed is justice denied – now is your chance to put this right!
  7. Help to establish a process that supports cross CJS record keeping and allows case tracking to become normalised. This doesn’t necessarily involve computers – planks of wood and box files work very well too.
  8. Make sure your innovative solutions to improving the CJS don’t have unintended consequences. Be sure you know what your end objectives are: reducing case-back logs and prison decongestion would be positive results you may wish to aim for.
  9. Oversight of the CJS is complicated because it involves so many institutions, many with different lines of governance and accountability. But ensuring that the system is transparent and is accountable for its performance and behaviour is critical. Consider how oversight may be managed in a more coordinated manner.
  10. Top-tip! Remember, that in many parts of the world, and particularly in sub-Sahara Africa, the vast majority of people access security and justice through traditional, customary or other non-state means, and wouldn’t dream of using the established CJS. Therefore tips 1 to 9 however well delivered may make no impact at all on ordinary citizens lives if non-state actors are not considered.


[1] Complicated systems are large scale, but predictable and replicable.  Complex systems are relational and dynamic. See also Aleem Walji, Complicated vs Complex, Part 1, World Bank, 2013.

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