Four Ways to Innovate in Criminal Justice NOW

Posted by Alexandra Walker, PhD on 4/8/20 7:00 AM

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We have another article from Dr. Alexandra Walker we would like to share!  We absolutely love this article she wrote and know it is helpful information for all you practitioners out there.

I am often asked what agencies can do right now to move the needle on improving outcomes and implementing reforms. Working across systems, I've discovered that there is certainly no magic pill but there are practices to move criminal justice agencies from inertia toward change. 

1.      Stop doing stuff – this is a lot harder than it sounds. As we try to keep up with complex needs, stakeholder demands, licensing, regulations, and the ever-growing desire to incorporate evidence-based practices into all that we do, the tendency is to pile on duties without ever taking anything off our plate. Asking ourselves what we can stop doing is just as important as considering new practices. It can be hard to think that the things we have been doing for years, or even decades, may not be as important to the overall mission as we once thought. People get attached to their work and often find reasons to defend practices, even when they no longer serve a purpose. Our status quo cognitive bias rarely scrutinizes current practices to the same extent as change and the suggestion to stop doing something is often met with raised eyebrows and what if statements (e.g. what if something bad happens?). So how do you get started? Track of everything you and your staff do for at least a week. Then, as hard as it is, start asking ‘why’ as you review all the meetings, tasks, and work taking up real estate on your calendars. Identify things that are duplicative and/or are being done ‘because we always have’, stop doing them, and see what happens. This can require some creativity, innovation, and leadership to help reduce the anxiety that comes with letting go. Can’t identify anything to stop doing? Sometimes we are too close to the situation to be able to pick these things out. Ask a new employee for their perspective or call in a professional to give you an overview of your practices. When we keep adding to our plates, we forget to build in time to focus on larger agency goals.

2.      Measure fidelity – the expectations for criminal justice professionals and agencies have never been higher. We are all trying our best to implement policies, programs, and practices that will bring about better outcomes for individuals, communities, and our organization. But how do we know that what we are doing is working? We all strive to use data to make decisions, it's worth considering whether you are looking at the right data in the first place. Consider taking time to "get micro", going deep into how policies, programs, and practices are actually being delivered. Seek out data related to decision points, service delivery, staff interactions and the impact of organizational culture. This micro data can illuminate how practices are understood, delivered and internalized by staff, clients, and stakeholders. Introducing some qualitative feedback into the analysis of your data and reports can reveal assumptions and provide new insight into how what you intend to achieve plays out in day to day practice. Break things down into measurable steps, collect data, and share learning as often as possible. When everyone knows what is expected and how to meet fidelity, you get there a lot faster.

3.      Coach collaboratively – feedback is more than just a yearly performance evaluation. Find ways to give staff feedback in the moment and on a regular basis. Make feedback and practice sessions a regular part of your staff meetings. Even a 5-minute exercise that staff can do as a group can be very powerful for skill development and proficiency. Want to go all in with coaching practices? Consider adopting a collaborative coaching model where you coach staff through interactions with clients in the moment in person or through an earpiece. Help staff to build skills and competence so they can see how their work impacts clients in real time. And, feedback is a loop, so don't forget to check in with the people implementing new practices. They are perfectly positioned to problem solve and iterate new ideas with the right support from leaders. 

4.      Create space for your staff to think – people are most creative and innovative when they have time built into their schedule to think, synthesize information, and explore options. In an industry where being busy, and dare I say exhausted, is used as a status symbol, we have a long way to go to move from the urgent work to the important work of improving outcomes, which requires engaging the creative part of our brain to solve some of our most wicked problems. Take a lesson from some of the greatest innovators of our time and find ways to support your staff in taking brain breaks, being distracted with fun, and interacting with colleagues and clients in novel ways. With an energized and creative staff, all you need to do is sit back and support the process – they will find the solutions for you. 

What are you and your staff doing to create space for innovation and reform in criminal justice? Share your thoughts with them on LinkedIn or email Dr. Alexandra Walker at

Dr. Alexandra Walker has over 20 years in the field of corrections and reentry. She offers a diverse background in corrections, reentry reform, training/education, implementation science, and treatment modalities. Dr. Walker has a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice with an emphasis in Corrections and Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a PhD in Sociology from Colorado State University. She worked as a research assistant for the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice on several federal, state, and locally funded research projects. She has worked with both juveniles and adults, in both institutional and reentry settings. She has managed several agency specific and statewide implementation projects involving evidence-informed practices and policies. In addition, Dr. Walker has developed, implemented, and measured fidelity of evidence-based practices and programming in community corrections programs in Colorado. Dr. Walker enjoys giving back to the field by providing training and delivering addresses and workshops to organizational across the U.S. including the American Probation and Parole Association and the Association for Paroling Authorities International. As a skilled public speaker, Dr. Walker provides research and evaluation support to implementation efforts, coaches staff on implementation and behavior change efforts, and develops practices and resources for specialized populations.

To learn more about her work at the Alliance for Community and Justice Innovation, go to After years of implementing innovative practices across various systems, we continued to encounter the same cultural, leadership, people and data challenges year after year. During these implementation efforts, well-intended people would spend time, money and resources with little to show for outcomes other than frustrated staff and ineffective policy. As a result, we decided to take some action and began an alliance for criminal justice innovation to help systems and people transform the way they work and think about justice to design better systems and achieve better results.  


Alexandra Walker

Alexandra Walker, PhD



Topics: Community Corrections Professional, program results, EBP, Criminal Justice Reform, innovation, Fidelity, Reforms, Outcomes, Implementation

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