Why Systems Mapping in Juvenile Justice Is Difficult, But Doable

Why Systems Mapping in Juvenile Justice Is Difficult, But Doable

March 27, 2017 | Katie Press, Researcher, NCCD

Line of Teens, one Facing us and Smile_jpg

In my last blog post I talked about the unintended consequences of a lack of systems thinking. As a social worker, if I had had better communication with other professionals as well as with my client, the situation might have turned out differently. So why aren’t more people talking about systems thinking when it comes to juvenile justice reform? To reform a system, we first need to map and understand it. Below are three reasons why this is hard to do in juvenile justice.


  1. Lack of capacity and coordination. Juvenile justice systems often are fragmented, which can lead to a lack of uniformity in data collection as well as decentralized decision making. In one state, each county may be using its own data system or an off-the-shelf solution; or it may not collect data at all.
  2. No data-driven culture. Even when juvenile justice systems do collect data, these data rarely are used in decision making and system improvement. Many agencies do not have a good understanding of who is being funneled into the system and why, factors that may be affecting system equity, or even how the system impacts youth outcomes. Data that could be used to make timely system improvements often are relegated to annual reports and are not used in a timely manner or shared at all levels of the system.
  3. Underestimating complexity. Juvenile justice systems comprise many internal and external inputs, activities, and outputs, which combine to give overall indicators of system performance. A change in one component may have no effect on its intended outcome, but it may have a negative effect on another part of the system. Without system mapping, it is difficult or impossible to track the effects of reform efforts, including any unintended consequences.

System mapping in juvenile justice may be difficult, but it is achievable. It is also an important step on the path to system reform. With a proper system map, the effects of reforms can be predicted before they are even implemented and tracked to ensure they perform as expected. Thankfully, a comprehensive body of research exists in the health-care field regarding system mapping and analysis. In my next blog post, I will discuss the applicability of health system mapping and analysis to juvenile justice systems.