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Can State Legislation Fix The Criminal Justice System For The Better?


February 16, 2022 – ACJI is offering a FREE resource to bill drafters, legislators, and agency heads to help in developing legislation that will have a great impact. Read to the end for details on how to download your copy of the Implementation Impact Tool.

Considering the volume of criminal justice legislation any given state legislature passes in any given year, it is impossible for agencies to meet all the expectations of legislators. (ACJI estimates an average of 40 pieces of criminal justice legislation in most states annually, and that doesn’t include behavioral health and social service-oriented bills.) 

When you consider that it takes anywhere from two to twenty years* for an agency to roll out a new policy, practice, or program, how could all of these efforts be successful?

But it’s not hopeless. There is a science that proves an agency can make positive changes that lead to great outcomes.  

Starting With The Data

ACJI is reviewing five years of passed criminal justice legislation from one US state to determine how effective agencies are implementing that legislation. We are keeping the name of the state anonymous because it’s not the point of the study. The issues we are finding in our research are occurring all over the USA because of one thing: a lack of implementation capacity.

In all, we looked at 205 criminal justice bills that passed between 2017 and 2021 in that one state. About 85% of the bills required implementation efforts. That left 179 bills that required shifts in policy, practice, or programming! And this number only includes criminal justice legislation, when you include behavioral health and social service-oriented bills that number skyrockets to more than 500.

That’s a lot of mandated change!

An article summarizing our findings is being submitted for publication shortly and therefore we are not prepared to share all our findings on how this legislation has been carried out to date. However, we are able to share a few notable data points. Of the 179 criminal justice bills reviewed:

  • 67% required a shift in current practice
  • 38.5% required an entirely new practice
  • 17% involved the creation of a new law
  • Only about 25% included funding supports
  • Less than 4% provided additional full-time employees
  • Less than 3% included a pilot process or evaluation supports

This clearly illustrates the importance of implementation capacity for agencies required to put criminal justice legislation into practice. 

Will The Legislation Succeed?

Full implementation is defined by the Active Implementation Research Network (AIRN) as “50% of the people engaged in the change have met a measure of fidelity.” Failure of change efforts costs taxpayers and the community millions, if not billions, of dollars, not to mention decreased morale and turnover of employees, safety problems that arise in communities, and so much more.

We don’t yet know the implementation success rates of the change efforts we are following, but we can set this research aside and say confidently that most implementation efforts (regardless of industry, discipline, or funding) fail. According to AIRN, there is an 80-90% failure rate of implementation efforts that require people to do something differently (shifts in policy, practice, and programming). It’s our goal to bring the science of implementation to the forefront of legislation and to work toward reducing these daunting percentages. Speaking of which…

The Implementation Solution

Efforts to make change through legislation alone have a limited impact on system outcomes. That much is clear.

However, the study of implementation science has shown there is a process for implementing policies, practices, and programs BETTER. This is at the crux of ACJI’s Implementation Leadership Academy as well as the Implementation Impact Tool that we designed specifically for legislators and agency heads.

As each legislative session approaches, agency heads and legislators must consider how they craft, structure, and design legislation so they are set up for success. The Implementation Impact Tool will help you do just that.

Get The ACJI Implementation Impact Tool



If you are still wondering, “Can State Legislation Change The Criminal Justice System For the Better?” the answer is, only if that legislation is crafted to support effective implementation from the start. 

*The research says that it takes two to four years to implement a new policy, practice, or program with expert-level implementation support and that it takes 10-20 years without an expert approach. (Source: Fixsen, D. L., Blase, K. A., & Van Dyke, M. K (2019). Implementation Practice & Science. Chapel Hill, NC: Active Implementation Research Network.)