Tuesday, August 22, 2006

So You Want to Start a Sentencing Commission? Part VI

Part VI of a series. The last part talked about what was needed for a good commission, including membership and chair. This part deals with director and staff.

Executive Director
As mentioned, sometimes (rarely but sometimes) a well-respected commission director can substitute in most, if not all, areas for a poor commission chair. The pool of experienced sentencing commission directors with good, well-established reputations is similar in size to that of the blacksmith population—there but few in number. That said, someone meeting the criteria from another criminal justice board, commission, agency (or non-criminal justice if either reputation or experience is overwhelming) could fill the bill. Frequently, states will pull people from corrections, justice assistance, court administration, etc., to be their commission director. The risk, of course, is that they will be perceived as too connected to their prior base to be the impartial arbiter that the director is usually expected to be. (If you already have a commission, existing staff clearly may supply internal candidates, if they are not tainted by their links to the old director, if the parting was not pleasant.)

What qualifications should the executive director generally have? They should be carbon copies of your blog hosts here.

However, as we are hard to find, let’s list some of the basics. An advanced degree from a reputable institution is not a requirement for actual functioning, but it does add some glamour in a world of high-powered judges, attorneys, policymakers, and other mover/shakers. The editors both have Ph.D.’s in political science, but that’s actually a little rare (discipline and, less so, degree). A J.D. will work and a good Master’s in policy and/or administration is impressive enough, especially if followed with good management and political skills. But several good commission directors have been known to be smart enough to get out of higher ed with their Bachelor’s and their minds intact.

Should they have previous sentencing experience, either with a commission or courts or elsewhere? It’s helpful, but we’re not talking rocket science or neurosurgery here. If their learning curve is steep and fast, this isn’t as vital as a good general knowledge of policy and administration first and of criminal justice second. A sense of (and preferably actual experience with) data collection and reporting in criminal justice will prevent the shock and inertia that await virgins immersed for the first time into that statistical maelstrom. Depending on the expected extent of their involvement with other sentencing and criminal justice participants, the director’s skills in diplomacy and political strategy may be important. (My boss in MD was impressed that I had served a couple of terms (not in prison) on a small-town school board, believing that only someone who had held himself before voters could understand how things worked as well as needed. I hope I didn't disappoint.)

As directors, they will have to perform all (or most of, if staff size is large enough for delegation) the basic management functions—planning, budgeting, hiring, procurement, state administrative rule compliance, grant administration (if applicable), etc. They must be able to testify before legislative committees, make presentations to the public (citizens, advocacy and professional groups), deal with the news media as well as other agencies and other commissions. They should be able to put together clear and thorough written and statistical reports (again, with delegation depending on staff size). They will have to get meetings planned, agendas set, materials produced, rooms (and maybe parking) reserved, etc., or oversee those who do. It might be nice if they occasionally have an original idea, but it’s not a prerequisite. An established commission and staff generally have routines set for all this, but it takes a few months and meetings for a new commission to get those routines up and running. If you have questions, a call to an established commission or two should answer most of them (again, make use of the familial sentencing fraternity).

A good executive director of a sentencing commission is like a good director of anything. S/he handles day-to-day management in a way to please later auditors, keeps well informed on state politics as well as sentencing issues, knows what is happening in other states and lets the commission know of possibly useful innovations for its state, communicates well and frequently with commissioners individually and as a whole, and always looks for ideas and means to do the commission’s work and policymaking better. Hopefully, s/he will attract good staff and be effective in delegating to them to get work produced well and on time. S/he will develop a reputation for honesty, utility, and effectiveness among the relevant policymakers and practitioners and will not end up on the front page of the statewide newspaper (although an occasional article on page 8A is okay, usually).

Commission Staff
As indicated, a commission’s executive director does not have to fit this description perfectly if s/he has a staff of adequate size and skill to offset deficiencies. The basic management rules the authors try to follow are: (1) hire good people, tell them what you want and when, hold them to that, and get out of their way, (2) hire people who are good at what you’re not. The more people you have, the higher the list of your relative incompetencies you can check off.

What staff do you and your director need? Commission staffs range in size from one or two to double digits. A minimum of four to six are necessary to perform the usual tasks expected of commissions. Those with only a couple of staff have to throw themselves on the kindness of others (other related agencies and/or individual commissioners and their staffs) to provide cooperative assistance. It can work (one author has twice now started commissions with two people, the other has done it once), but it’s the pits and to be avoided if possible. Otherwise, you can end up with your executive director entering data or dealing with problem orders from Boise Cascade. (They shouldn’t be above it, but it’s not considered cost-effective.)

If you make the mistake of getting substantial work done with minimal staff, appropriators will never believe you need more people, but you can’t count on that initial cooperative assistance to always be there. So triage what you get done and make the case early and often for more staff. It’s admittedly a Catch-22—you have to get things done to show value to get decisionmakers to get you staff to get things done. Still, if you are one of those decisionmakers, reading this, you will get far more and better done for a longer period of time from adequate staff in the beginning. Find the resources.

Whom do you need? Foremost, you need analysts, people who will take the sentencing data and information and produce reports for policymakers and the public. If your executive director can handle the report-writing and/or public presentations, then your analysts can be the stereotypical geeks growing pale and pasty at their desks. If the staff is small, chances are, however, that time and work demands will force the analysts into more overt roles, which they should be equipped to play. Again, Ph.D.’s aren’t necessary, but bachelor’s programs rarely prepare analysts well enough in statistics and other essentials. Such hirees can play lesser functions, such as data entry, basic statistical reporting, public liaison, etc., but your analysts should have Master’s degrees in policy/administration or in criminal justice with good analytical requirements.

If you have the funding, a communications liaison to handle the public and media (reports, press releases, logistics of publications, etc.) is useful. An information technology specialist is also valuable, especially if you would otherwise have to rely on contractors or a host agency’s people. Given the importance of a website these days, the IT person should be creative as well as capable in designing a useable as well as informative site. If your commission’s offices are easily accessible to a college or university, some funding set aside for interns is nice. Undergrads can do data entry and basic report-writing (each carefully overseen by staff) while grad students from good programs can do more advanced research and statistical analysis and reporting. (And please be sure to credit them in your reports so they can take away a resume-addition.)

Other helpful staff, once you have these key positions adequately filled, would be an office manager and a grant writer/administrator. Don’t spend on secretaries or receptionists until you cover these other areas. The work of a sentencing commission doesn’t really require them since staff, including the executive director, can handle phone calls and the rare visitor. They’re not too good for it.

On the topic of staff, mention must be made once again of the absolute necessity of the staff’s “neutral competence.” Some policymakers love to misuse staff, to force them to agree to analyze problems or produce results with the preferred conclusions already set. Commissioners are not above biased analysis, either. As stated earlier, however, the long-term value of any staff is the integrity and trustworthiness of its work for all who use it, even the abusers. Bending staff work toward a predetermined agenda may work a time or two, but in the end misuse becomes known and staff become useless, even to the abusers. The chair and the executive director must buffer and protect the analysts from these ultimately debilitating pressures.

With a bipartisan commission composed of different branches and interests, this is not as big a problem as it is for more homogeneous and closed analyst offices, but an active commissioner seeking to thrust his/her agenda past others under the guise of “staff recommendations” has been known to happen. Do not let it. And do not choose chairs, executive directors, or staff who let it or who have their own axes to grind, crosses to bear, dogs in the hunt, [insert your own favorite cliché]. A commission known to slant and deceive deserves its inevitable reward.

What else is needed? Next part . . . .

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