Who is the most innovative figure in criminal justice?

According to a national survey of court administrators, elected prosecutors, police chiefs and corrections officials, the answer is Bill Bratton, who over the years has served with distinction as the leader of police departments in New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

Why did the survey respondents choose Bratton? Perhaps it is because Bratton fits the general description of a ground-breaking criminal justice leader as defined by the survey: someone who uses research to guide decision-making, who is willing to take risks and who is able to respond to failure by analyzing what isn't working and then responding accordingly.

Seemingly every day, leaders in fields such as business, technology and medicine earn newspaper headlines for breakthrough discoveries. In contrast, the field of criminal justice isn't generally known for innovation. This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, many criminal justice agencies are effectively paramilitary organizations — not typically breeding grounds for creative thinkers. And the justice system in general reveres tradition — our courts were established to exalt process and precedent, not new ideas.

In an effort to take a snapshot of the current state of criminal justice reform, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance commissioned researchers at the Center for Court Innovation to survey the leaders of criminal justice agencies across the country. The result is the first-ever study to take an in-depth look at how criminal justice leaders think about innovation.

More than 600 officials, with an average of more than 26 years of experience in the field, responded to the survey. While Bratton is, of course, a remarkable leader, he is not the only one of his kind. Nine out of 10 respondents reported that they regularly looked to research and data to guide policymaking. This represents a significant change from the days of decision-making based on anecdote, when leaders often made choices based on their gut instincts. In general, there was a strong link between research and innovation: Leaders who reported greater use of research also reported higher levels of innovation at their agencies.

More than two-thirds of the respondents reported that they had been personally involved in a program or initiative that did not work. Ironically, this is a sign of the health of the field: It may happen under the radar, but criminal justice agencies are actively involved in a trial-and-error process as they look for new ways to improve practice.

When asked to identify specific new programs that they were excited about, the criminal justice leaders pointed to a broad range of initiatives, including problem-solving courts, evidence-based sentencing reforms and technological tools, including the Compstat approach pioneered by Bratton.

Although criminal justice reform is alive and well, the survey did highlight several significant barriers to ongoing innovation. These include budget cuts, the resistance of frontline staff to new thinking and a lack of cost-effective tools to spread information. Despite the existence of the Internet, criminal justice leaders are still relying on expensive and old-fashioned tools — conferences, word-of-mouth — to learn about new ideas.

Notwithstanding these obstacles, the findings from the innovation survey suggest that the state of criminal justice reform is healthy. For many years, the field of criminal justice was haunted by the idea that "nothing works" — that it was impossible to change the behavior of offenders and that chronic crime and disorder were simply a fact of life in large American cities. As the innovation survey makes clear, these ideas have now been well and thoroughly debunked as criminal justice reformers from coast to coast have embraced change and launched an array of new initiatives designed to reduce crime and improve the lives of defendants.

Greg Berman is director of the Center for Court Innovation.