Analytic Methodologies for Dealing with Criminal Justice Systems

Problem Structuring Methods

A problem can be defined as a gap between a current and a desired state of affairs. In this context, state of affairs refer to a set of values assigned to some respective performance measures. For example, with respect to the criminal justice system one problem could be defined as:

67% of prisoners released from incarceration are re-arrested within three years (Durose, Cooper, and Snyder (2014)). We would like that figure to be at most 20%.

The gap in this case is between the 67% and 20% at a maximum. This problem is one that might be considered as an ill-structured problem as opposed to a well-structured or semi-structured problem.

As discussed by Simon (1960) problems fall along a range of complexity, from ill-structured to well-structured. Ill-structured problems, such as the one above involving prisoner recidivism, are those for which we have many difficult-to-identify stakeholders and decision makers, and, as a result, there are many conflicting objectives. In addition, good data for modeling these problems are often difficult to obtain, and good alternative solutions are not immediately obvious. Finally, the root causes are often difficult to identify.

Typically, ill-structured problems are embedded within a whole network of problems, termed messes by Ackoff (1979). Many of the methodologies associated with problem structuring involve the identification of these networks. Identifying the network of problems allows one to more easily establish the root causes of the problem, the relevant stakeholders and decision makers, good alternative solutions, sources of uncertainty and risk, and important systems that are connected to the system in which the initial problem is embedded.

Some of the important problem structuring, and related, methodologies include cognitive mapping (Eden and Ackermann, 2004), breakthrough thinking (Nadler and Hibino, 1990), the Kepner and Tregoe Method (Kepner and Tregoe, 1981), the Delphi Method (Linstone and Turoff, 1975). and the Why-What's Stopping (WWS) problem structuring heuristic (Basadur et al. (1994) and Ellspermann et al. 2007)).

These problem structuring methods typically involve the efforts of a group of participants, consisting of an analyst or facilitator, stakeholders, and decision makers with different perspectives on the problem. This group will work in an interactive fashion, to generate the problem structuring output. The approaches also typically involve “divergent thinking” (an example of which is brainstorming) to generate the output from the process.

The WWS heuristic starts from a single problem statement to generate a whole network of problem statements, with various perspectives on the problem. This network contains problem statements which basically correspond to alternative solutions to the problem. As noted above, group interaction involves a facilitator and a variety of stakeholders with differing perspectives. The discussion in the group is supposed to be non-critical in nature; that is, no problem statement suggested by a group member is to be criticized by another group member.

The output from the WWS heuristic will be a two-dimensional problem map, where each node in the map corresponds to a problem statement. An arc pointing upward from one problem statement to another corresponds to a problem statement which is more specific in nature leading to a problem statement which is more general in nature. Correspondingly, an arc pointing downwards from one problem statement to another corresponds to a more general problem statement leading to a more specific problem statement.

An Illustrative Example of Problem Structuring for Juvenile Crime

The problem statements generated by the WWS heuristic start with the phrase “How might we/I...” to provide the process with an optimistic perspective. For example, a problem statement could be given as:

How might we greatly reduce juvenile crime in our city?

Addressing a problem such as this is certainly important given the facts that (1) the great majority of adult criminals start their criminal behavior as juveniles and (2) in 2018, juvenile jurisdiction courts disposed of approximately 744,500 cases, of which 232,400 involved offenses to a person (homicide, rape, robbery, simple assault, aggravated assault, etc.), 225,900 involved property offenses, 101,000 involved drug law violations, and 185,100 involved public order offenses. Though 744,500 is a large number of cases, it does represent a decrease nationally over time. In particular, the total number of annual cases had decreased by 5% from 2017 to 2018,48% from 2009 to 2018, and 35% from 1985 to 2018 (Statistical Briefing Book, n.d.). Even though there has been a decrease on the national level, local communities have seen increases.

Following this initial problem statement, the facilitator can ask either of two questions:

  • 1) Why do we want to greatly reduce juvenile crime in our city? or
  • 2) What’s stopping us from greatly reducing juvenile crime in our city?

The answers to the first question (why) will generate several problem statements of a more general nature than the original problem statement. These more general problem statements can allow us to view the original problem from a different perspective.

The answers to the second question (what’s stopping) will allow us to generate several problem statements of a more specific nature.

These more specific problem statements may very well correspond to specific actions that can be taken as solutions to the problem.

Answers to the question: “Why do we want to greatly reduce juvenile crime in our city?” might be:

  • • We want our young people to lead productive lives.
  • • We want our young people to serve as good role models for others.
  • • We want to reduce the costs associated with crime in our city.
  • • We want to have safe shopping areas, safe residential areas, and safe parks in our city.
  • • We want to create a good business climate in our city.

Answers to the question: “What’s stopping us from greatly reducing juvenile crime in our city?” might be:

  • • Many of our young people do not have a sense of belonging to something meaningful.
  • • Many of our young people drop out of high school.
  • • Many of our young people have poor role models.
  • • Many of our young people are living in poverty.
  • • Many of our young people are substance abusers.
  • • Many of our young people live in dysfunctional single-parent homes.
  • • Many of our young people live in homes where one or both parents are substance abusers.
  • • Our police are not being used efficiently.
  • • We need to increase funding for law enforcement.
  • • We need to improve rehabilitation programs for young people who are convicted of crimes.
  • • We need to reduce or eliminate harmful effects of the internet.
  • • Many of our young people have personality dysfunctions or emotional problems.
  • • We need to have a way to keep dangerous juvenile offenders off the streets.
  • • We need more alternative schools.

Of course, there are many other statements that we could provide as answers to these questions. Once we have these statements, we re-phrase them into “How might we...” statements, such as: “How might we have our young people lead productive lives?” and “How might we provide young people with better role models?”. Each of these “How might we...” problem statements are placed in respective rectangles or nodes as part of a diagram. An arc is placed in the diagram from one node to another with an upward orientation if the latter node represents a problem statement which is an answer to the “why question” for the former node’s problem statement; the arc has a downward orientation if the latter node represents a problem statement which is an answer to the “what’s stopping” question for the former node’s problem statement.

At this point we would have a problem network with three levels of problems. The top level would have five problem statements, the middle level would have one problem statement, and the bottom level would have fourteen problem statements. Note that the higher-level problem statements address the issue from a broader, more general perspective; the lower-level problem statements address the issue from a more specific perspective.

Continuing with the problem network, we could expand upward or downward from any node (problem statement) in the network. As we expand downward, we eventually get to problem statements which represent alternative solutions to the original problem. Expanding downward from one of the higher-level problem statements could very well lead to solutions which would not have been obvious from expanding downward from the original problem statement.

See Figure 2.1 for a problem network that could have been developed with a little more effort from the initial work discussed above. Note that expanding down from the problem statement “How might we reduce the costs associated with crime in our city?” yields the problem statement: “How might we get our businesses to have better security measures?”. This latter problem statement could lead to solutions for better security measures for businesses, which may not have been an obvious solution derived from the initial problem statement.

It’s probably true that someone familiar with the area of juvenile crime would be able to develop as much or more content as is contained in Figure 2.1. However, if the WWS heuristic were applied in an actual setting involving teachers, business owners, students, parents, school administrators, police, youth counselors, etc., then the opportunity to discuss priorities among the various participants would be available. The advantages of the various lower-level problem statements (solutions) could be discussed in more detail.

For additional discussion of the WWS heuristic, see pages 29-36 of Evans (2017) or Basadur et al. (1994).

A partial WWS problem network for the problem

Figure 2.1 A partial WWS problem network for the problem: "how might we greatly reduce juvenile crime in our city".

 
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