It is the Criminal Justice “System”

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I’ve been a prosecutor for 25 years and I’ve seen the good and the bad over the years. I have seen defendants change their behavior and become law-abiding citizens, and I have seen others keep making the same bad choices and end up in prison. But something that is important to remember is I am only one component in the Criminal Justice “System.” Look up the definition of the word system and you will find: “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.” As a prosecutor, I have a role to play in this system, just like the law enforcement officer, the judge, the probation officer and the treatment provider.

Together we make up a system designed to hold offenders accountable.


We have all seen the acronym GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. Without having a full understanding of a defendant’s background, the prosecutor, judge, probation officer, and treatment provider are working with their hands tied behind their backs. To be effective, the system requires information on who is using it, in this case, the defendant; and, that requires obtaining and sharing important information with each connected component.

During one of the consensus meetings held by the National Partnership on Alcohol Misuse and Crime, the attendees agreed on a number of necessary steps that must be implemented for the Criminal Justice System to work effectively.

Defendants Need to be Screened

It is important for justice officials to identify offenders with alcohol, drug and/or mental health issues. Where feasible, the following defendants should be screened for alcohol, drug and mental health issues prior to arraignment using generally accepted tools:

  • Defendants with past histories of alcohol, drug or mental health issues
  • Defendants arrested for felonies or violent misdemeanors
  • Defendants under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs at the time of the alleged offense

Offenders who screen positive for alcohol, drug or mental health issues should be formally assessed for both clinical needs and criminogenic risk factors prior to sentencing.

  • Clinical needs include alcohol and other drug use, abuse and dependence, mental health problems, and functional impairments (like inability to maintain employment or relationships).
  • Criminogenic risk factors include risk of dangerousness, risk of re-offending, risk of violating conditions of supervision, and risk for failure in standard treatment interventions.

Use the Right Tools to Screen and Assess the Person

Tools for conducting risk and clinical needs assessments that have been validated for the general population should be validated for specific offender populations as well.

Reliable and culturally unbiased tools for conducting risk and clinical needs assessments of offenders should be validated for the offender population, made readily available in the public domain, utilized, evaluated and continuously improved.

Screening and assessment tools should be administered according to generally accepted practices.

Communicate that Information to the Rest of the System

Recommendations based on risk and clinical needs assessments should be communicated to the sentencing judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, defendant, probation officer and prior to sentencing.

Courts should consider recommendations based on risk and clinical needs assessments when sentencing offenders.

You can read the full consensus statement here.

Responding Effectively

By obtaining a complete assessment of the person’s clinical needs and criminogenic risk factors the judge will have the knowledge on how to sentence him or her. Is prison appropriate for this defendant? What about jail or probation for that person? Perhaps the defendant should also receive intensive treatment for an addiction. It is determining the person’s needs and risk factors that can inform a judge and the other components of the system that will allow all of us to respond appropriately and effectively.