Tim Murray is the Executive Director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, the nation’s leader in pretrial justice reform. He was worked as a criminal justice practitioner at the local, state and federal levels. While in Miami, he was one of the principal architects and administrator of the nation’s first drug court. He went on to serve with the US Department of Justice as the first Director of the Drug Court Program Office. Following that appointment, he held the positions of Director of Policy and Planning and Director of Program Development at the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Why should we talk about failure?
I think failure is both promising and interesting because it is such common experience among criminal justice practitioners who try to innovate in the face of obstacles and problems yet it’s a secret that’s never spoken out loud. Failure comes with lessons learned, yet those lessons are held pretty selfishly because there’s no platform for them to be shared.
Why is failure so hard to talk about openly?
Put simply, when you’re in a position to design and administer programs, you’re not being paid to fail. You tend not to report failure, and it results in trying to find success where often there is none. There’s a reluctance to go forward and say, we totally failed with this effort, but we learned some valuable lessons. Unfortunately, failure doesn’t resonate at any level. People avoid the stigma of being associated with failure by saying everything is successful. One of the perversions in last 30 or 40 years of federal funding of criminal justice innovations is that it has fallen prey to the idea that experimentation always leads to success. It’s as though we are telling criminal justice practitioners, you can only do what is successful, you’re only allowed to be successful, but you’re not allowed to experiment to separate what is successful from what is a failure.
How do you encourage people to share stories about failure?
I think you to create a professional culture that allows failure to occur. There shouldn’t be a stigma when a well designed, well intentioned initiative doesn’t achieve the outcomes it sets out to achieve. Unless you can shine light on these failures, you’re going to spend all your time and effort calling failure success, and I think that’s what happened over the last few decades. The good news is that the lessons of failure are enormously beneficial to those in line to make the same mistakes or reach the same dead end.
Does leadership also play a role?
Absolutely. One important factor is for leaders to be realistic about what constitutes success. Early on in drug courts, Janet Reno as a local prosecutor in Miami told me she wanted it to take longer for people in drug courts to be rearrested. In some quarters, that definition of success would be seen as anything but. In hindsight, it was a very realistic definition for a chief law enforcement agent in a community being ravaged by drug abuse.
What’s your personal approach to failure?
I have always believed that there was a lot of capital to be gained by admitting failure and showcasing it. Admittedly, that belief has been driven by my fear that if I did not admit my own failings, others would do it for me. For example, in the earliest days of drug courts, I helped funnel street prostitutes into drug treatment even though they weren’t technically drug court eligible. Every single one of them absconded. It was shocking. I felt obligated to go to the drug court coordinating committee and tell them, I really screwed that up. In the process, though, we learned a ton – many of the women had children, and didn’t want to go into residential treatment and be separated from their kids. Until then, we didn’t pay much attention to their needs.
Are you saying that there are some advantages to admitting failure?
I call it calculated candor. It makes you stronger than someone who denies failure or runs away from it. You also gain respect for your integrity, and as someone willing to take some risks. Of course, you also need some success to point to on the other side of the ledger. Another advantage is that when you admit failure, your claims of success have a lot more legitimacy.