The Limiting Language of Disruption

Criminal justice and tech are having a moment, and I don't want this moment to leave a bitter taste because we were promised disruption and only experienced incremental change.
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I hate the word "disrupt." Rather, I hate how it's used.

It's the term that every startup and entrepreneur promises: a quick and complete overthrow of an existing system or practice. We all know the narrative: airbnb disrupts the hotel industry; Uber disrupts taxis; Etsy disrupts needlepoint. The near impossible act of disruption is now unironically ubiquitous.

It's safe to say that the mavens pitching their groundbreaking idea are using this definition of disruption: "to drastically alter or destroy the structure of something". I get the purpose of rhetorical devices and the desire to be hyperbolic in a hyper-competitive environment, but the examples above aren't disruption. Sure, Uber has hurt the taxi industry, but Uber is not the light bulb, vaccines, or the Internet; all of which are certifiably disruptive, if not revolutionary.

No matter what car service I use, I still contact a stranger, get into a car I haven't seen before, and take a preexisting road to my final destination. Sure there's no medallions and my phone handles everything, but Uber still has to play by existing rules or go through existing legislative processes to change those rules. They've created greater convenience and a market competitor, but I'm hard pressed to see how they either drastically altered or destroyed the structure of someone driving me somewhere.

It would be one thing if this linguistic zeitgeist only manifested through slide decks in the Bay Area, but that isn't the case. This blustery trope has infested other parts of our society, and I have a specific problem with this language intruding on the criminal justice space. This is a space I would love to see genuinely disrupted, but to say any tool is going to disrupt our criminal justice system is guaranteed to fall short.

For the most part, the criminal justice system will not be disrupted for the mere fact that our system is inoculated against disruption. The legislative and litigation processes, two major levers to criminal justice reform in the U.S., are intentionally slow. The former is structured for reform, not revolution. The latter is not only slow, but for many it is cost-prohibitive. Both can be confusing and aggravating, which create a high, if not impossible, bar to disruption.

Beyond these two structures, the criminal justice system itself isn't the easiest to change either. It isn't a software platform where new features can be easily added and tweaked. Further, even when we find a promising way forward, the standards used to create "best practices" are lumbering. The need for multiple studies and peer review are laborious. Whether we care to justify these hurdles or not, this is why reform is slow to come to criminal justice.

I say all of this, because criminal justice and tech are having a moment, and I don't want this moment to leave a bitter taste because we were promised disruption and only experienced incremental change.

America's criminal justice system has actually disrupted a generation of Americans caught up in tough on crime policies. It has taken us 30 years to collectively open our eyes to the destruction these policies have wrought on our communities. Now, we need to accomplish the impossible and push this tide back out to sea. Dismantling a system with entrenched private industry interests and institutional, bureaucratic momentum is no small feat. Throw the uncertainty of participatory democracy and elected judges on top of this behemoth and you begin to get a sense of the systemic restraints technology will experience in this field.

It might not feel this way, but I write this piece as an optimist. A right-sizing of our criminal justice system is on the horizon. This will be accomplished, and technology will play a large, supporting role. Foremost, technology will provide us better understanding through in-place metrics and real time data collection. Tech can also support system efficiency and an individual's outcome. Allowing the concept of human centered design to seep into our criminal justice psyche will benefit reentry, diversionary, and other programming. Technology can even provide assistance needed to improve our disruption impervious legislative and litigation processes.

Incrementally, these technologies will move the needle towards a fairer and more just criminal justice system. Technology will undoubtedly hasten reform efforts and supplement and bolster these recalcitrant systems. However, it will not disrupt them, and that's OK.

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