Community based assessment

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Why conduct a community based assessment of the criminal justice chain?

This overview looks at why a community-based assessment (CBA) of the criminal justice system is an option that might help to better address the needs of people and communities, including the most vulnerable, under real-world constraints. To set the scene, lets look at two key terms: assessment, and criminal-justice system. An assessment is a process of gathering and analysing information on needs to inform decision-making on programming. The criminal-justice system refers to the practices and institutions directed at preventing crime, sanctioning those who commit crimes, making efforts to rehabilitate them, and providing reparations to the victims.

Real World Constraints

Assessments are usually more complex than anticipated, especially in fragile and post-conflict contexts. Assessments are politically sensitive, time consuming and resource intensive. Moreover, the assessment team often has to operate under serious time and resource constraints.

In the criminal justice field, assessments often start with the defects of criminal justice institutions such as the police, the courts or the prisons. Such an actor-focused assessment looks for the reasons why the institutions are ineffective or inefficient in what they do. But it does not ask whether these institutions actually do what they should do. Programming developed on the basis of an actor-focused assessment will address certain institutional defects but may miss out on the problems and needs of communities. 


RISK: Actor-focused assessments helps institutions to do things right but not necessarily to do the right things.

One technique used in this tool is mapping, which is a process of gathering just the basic facts on the objects of interest, for instance on all criminal justice actors. Mapping is broad and complete but not deep and not detailed. A good mapping process produces a complete inventory and provides a bird’s-eye overview of all objects of interest.

FOCUS: Needs-based assessments help institutions to do the right things right.

A CBA, on the other hand, starts with identifying the criminal justice needs of communities, then asks what institutions should but do not respond to these needs, and finally looks for the reasons that account for why these institutions do not deliver services to meet the needs. Such an approach grounds programme decisions in the needs of communities, links needs with institutions, and ensures a service orientation of criminal justice activities. 

The graph above show the main activities undertaken in a CBA. Click on each activity to go to the next level and look in greater detail at what is involved in a CBA, including main principles, and who conducts a CBA.

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Short guide to Community based assessment


1. Map the needs

This initial stage of the process looks into what the criminal-justice needs of the community are, how they arise, and exactly who's needs the process should include. Mapping the actors comes in stage two of the process, but can be done concurrently with stage one as the two elements are very closely interlinked. Once a respondent sample has been established, the process continues with gathering data from the respondent sample and mapping their needs.

2. Map the actors

Stage 2 of the CBA consists in mapping all criminal justice actors in order to determine, in stages 3 and 4, the reasons that account for why the actors do not meet the communities’ criminal justice needs. Stages 1 and 2 can be carried out in parallel and draw on some of the same sources of information.

Which Actors?

The mapping of actors covers not just the police, the courts and the prisons but aims to establish a complete criminal justice inventory that includes the following:

I. Activities rather than names

The mapping should cover all actors that are actually  involved in criminal justice activities, irrespective of what they are called. For instance, the mapping covers not just institutions that are called “police” but all actors that actually carry out policing functions. This could involve an actor called “intelligence service”, “presidential guard”, or “neighbourhood watch”.

II. Not just State but also Non-State

Non-state actors often play important roles in the provision of criminal justice services. The mapping should include non-state actors providing criminal justice functions such as armed militias, customary justice mechanisms, and private security companies.

III. Not just providers but also management and oversight functions

Management and oversight functions are core criminal justice actors. Ministries provide management support functions. Formal oversight actors include parliamentary committees, human rights commissions and independent review boards. Civil society actors (such as human rights organisations and media outlets) often engage in oversight of criminal justice providers such as the police and the courts. These management and oversight functions should be included in the mapping. The table aboves provides a graphic overview of generic categories of actors. The outputs and resources tabs provide an example of how actors may be categorized generally. The precise categories depend on the country in question.

IV. Related Actors

Criminal justice actors are the focus of the mapping. However, other actors such as the military, intelligence, customs, border control and non-official armed groups cannot be ignored in the mapping process, in particular when they are involved in criminal justice functions, or when their relationship to criminal justice actors has to be clarified. For instance, defence forces often assume law enforcement functions in post-conflict contexts and their division of labour with the police is frequently a highly debated issue.

3. Link needs and actors

Stage 3 of the CBA consists in identifying which criminal justice actor(s) is/are responsible, in principle, to deliver services to meet the community need in question, or which actor/s directly cause/s the need. Again, the criminal justice needs of the communities are the starting point. For every need identified, answers to some of the following questions will help to identify the responsible criminal justice actors:

  • Does the need occur at the national, regional or local level? In what jurisdiction or area of responsibility?
  • Which actors (one or several, state or non-state, at national, regional or local level) should but are not, or only inadequately, delivering services to meet the need? Identify all criminal justice actors and the services that they may be responsible to deliver to meet the need in question.
  • Are there any other actors (formal and informal) that could respond to the same need or which may be responsible to deliver the same or a comparable service?
  • If no responsible actor can be identified, which criminal justice actors (within reason) should be responsible for the service?
  • Is the need caused directly by acts of commission or omission on the part of one or several criminal justice actors?

The answers to these questions should be used to complete Section 3 of the criminal justice need data sheets that have been drawn up during stage 1 of the CBA (see Resources box).

4. CIS - Identify causes

The Capacity, Integrity and Sustainability (CIS) Framework

Download the CIS Framework pdf

This stage of a Community Based Assessment consists of determining the institutional factors that lead to gaps and shortcomings in service delivery. 

The CIS Framework is a simple tool to help move beyond a focus on personnel skills and equipment, and towards three crucial dimensions of institutional survival. Originally designed to look at the capacity and integrity of an institution to be effective and accountable at the individual and organisation level, the model has since evolved to also look at external oversight aspects, as well as at the sustainability or continuity of not only individual posts and functions (recruitment and retention), but also organisational staffing structures and resourcing.

In analysing an institution, the CIS distinguishes between three levels of an institution:

  1. Individual: an individual’s background, education, experience and aptitude that helps him / her accomplish his / her tasks
  2. Organisational: an organisation’s mandate, resources, structures, policies and procedures
  3. External: its interdependence with other institutions

The three quality dimensions of an institution are:

  1. Capacity: existing resources, structures and procedures
  2. Integrity: respect for basic norms and values when using its capacity
  3. Sustainability: conditions for building a stable and sustainable service

At the end of this phase of analysis, the findings are documented in the data sheet.

For every responsible actor identified in the Stakeholder Analysis phase of the CBA, each of these eight categories should be considered to determine all institutional factors that have led to certain gaps and shortcomings. The following questions correspond to the eight categories of the CIS and help to identify these institutional factors.

An overview of common criminal justice needs, particularly in post-conflict and other fragile contexts, and typical institutional factors leading to gaps and shortcomings in service delivery, can be found in the Resources box.

5. Analyse findings

Stage 5, the final stage of the CBA, consists of putting together the CBA report to analyse the information and identify the key CBA findings. In particular, the CBA report should include the following findings:

  • The total number criminal justice needs
  • The needs sorted according to seriousness of the serious human rights violations
  • The needs sorted according to prevalence
  • The needs sorted according to community or group affected
  • The needs sorted according to category (section 1.1), criminal justice actors responsible (section 3), and the institutional factors that account for why the needs are not met (section 4.1)

It is also useful to draw a chart of the entire criminal justice chain and indicate where the needs occur in the chain. This will help to identify the weakest links in the chain. The UNODC chart of decision points provides a good overview of the steps and processes that invariably occur in the criminal justice chain (see Resources box).