UW Law Library Repository Logo

Reimagining Criminal Justice



Reimagining Criminal Justice



Published In





Bibliographic Citation

2010 Wis. L. Rev. 953 (2010)


The criminal justice system needs more than reform. It requires reimagining. In its present state, by every measure that matters, the criminal justice system is failing to deliver what can fairly be expected of it. Many crimes are never reported, and most crimes that are reported go unsolved. When offenders are identified and apprehended, they are often processed through the criminal justice system in a manner that values expediency over enhanced public safety. Despite falling crime rates, many communities remain unsafe. Limitations on the capacity of law enforcement agencies, prosecutors' offices, trial courts, and correctional programs prevent the criminal justice system, as presently configured, from responding to the volume of cases it processes with the time and attention needed to ensure justice is done and public welfare and security are advanced. In response to these glaring deficiencies in the current system, many policymakers and advocates have demanded increased resources for more patrol officers, more prosecutors, and more prisons"as though more of what is not working will somehow fix the problem. We take the position that more fundamental changes are needed if the criminal justice system is to succeed in its dual goals of reducing crime and serving the ends of justice. In this Essay, we set forth the reasons for our belief that the system needs to be re-imagined, asserting that whether the measure is efficiency, effectiveness, or equity, the current system fails to deliver. We explore the meaning of public safety, emphasizing that the traditional tools of arrest, prosecution, and conviction, standing alone, are unlikely to make homes, streets, and neighborhoods secure in any meaningful way. Drawing primarily on examples from the field of policing, we point to examples of ways in which local communities have successfully tackled discrete public safety problems, relying less on the invocation of the traditional criminal justice system and more on the creative use of state power and community resources. From those examples, we derive three principles that link the best of these efforts. We then consider the implications of our imagined criminal justice system for the roles of police, prosecutors, judges, and correctional agents, and for legal research and education as well. Finally, we acknowledge practical and theoretical obstacles to the change we advocate, and end with our reasons for optimism about the future of the criminal justice system.



criminal justice
situational crime prevention
community policing
community prosecution
public safety