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3a: Developing a System Map


One of the most fundamental ways to develop an understanding of a jurisdiction’s justice system is to develop a “system map.” Similar to an architectural diagram, a system map depicts the steps in the criminal justice process (i.e., processing of a case and the activities related to this), beginning with police contact and ending with the point in time when the case terminates. In addition to reflecting the key decision points in the system, the map reflects the decision makers at each key point and the amount of time it takes a case to move from one point to the next. It is also possible and desirable to document the volume of cases that flow through each process step and decision point. This may be accomplished first by noting estimated numbers and later by gathering data on a specified period of time to more precisely determine the flow and volume of cases and activities.

In the EBDM initiative, the system map will be the first step in developing a detailed understanding of each justice system decision point and of the evidence that informs these key decisions. Following the completion of the system map, a process to “dig deeper” into these decision points will be carried out. This more in-depth analysis will include an examination of the following as they relate to each decision point:

  • written policies;

  • the application of those policies to practice, as well as to other operational practices that are not formally articulated in policy;

  • the various types of data and information collected at each decision point;

  • the ways in which this data and information inform decisions;

  • the ways in which information is stored and shared; and

  • other factors related to using data, information, and evidence in the most efficacious ways.


Mapping serves a variety of purposes:

  • It increases awareness of the ways in which the entire system “works” and how different parts of the system interact with one another. (Most people understand quite well their own “part” of the system but have a less detailed understanding of the other parts of the system.)

  • It brings together policymakers and agency staff to articulate the decisions they make, how they arrive at those decisions, and when (i.e., at what point in the process) decisions are made.

  • It surfaces areas of interest for further inquiry.

  • It can sometimes lead to recognition of quick solutions to bottlenecks or inefficiencies.


Building a system map is a time-consuming process. The most desirable method is for the entire policy team to be fully involved in its development. However, given that this process can take a full day or more, this may not be practical. A second, effective option is to convene a series of “work groups” to help with the construction of the map.

Work groups might be formed around the following decision points:

  1. arrest

  2. pretrial status

  3. charging/plea

  4. sentencing

  5. local institutional intervention(s)/local institutional release

  6. community intervention(s)

  7. violation response

  8. discharge from supervision

Work groups should include a range of individuals who have different roles and perspectives in the case and decision making processes. Different levels of decision making authority should be represented as well, including the highest decision maker (agency head), those who oversee the work being conducted (supervisors/managers), and those at the line level. In many cases, work groups will also include those who handle information flow and case files. Receptionists, clerks, and administrative staff often have the best “window” on how things actually get done; they should not be overlooked in this process.

In addition, it is strongly recommended that the persons involved in information technology (data collection and analysis) participate in work groups. As noted above, it will be important to affix data to the map at some point in the future. Involving those who will be responsible for collecting and analyzing that data will facilitate their understanding of what is needed when the time comes to collect this data.

Finally, it is highly desirable for one or more persons from the team (i.e., local coordinator and/or another member) to be present for the entire mapping process, if at all possible. While this is a major time investment, the opportunity for at least one member of the jurisdiction to observe and learn from the entire process should not be underestimated.


  1. The policy team should have a discussion about mapping in advance of the mapping session:

    • Identify some of the issues and challenges the team most wants to learn about at each decision point to make sure these topics are addressed during the initial mapping session.

    • Identify the key individuals from each agency who have detailed knowledge about each decision point and make a plan for inviting them to attend each work group session. (See participants above.)

    • Identify the policy team member(s) who will attend the entire mapping session and who will be responsible, along with the local coordinator, for shepherding the mapping process for the team.

  2. The local coordinator should work with policy team members to craft an invitation to work group participants who will attend the mapping sessions. (An invitation template is provided in Appendix 1.) The invitation should outline the purpose of the mapping work group sessions, the date and two-hour work group session(s) they are asked to attend, and any additional information they should bring with them to the mapping work group session (i.e., information about time frames between decision points, easily accessible data about the volume of cases at decision points, maps they know about or that already exist and that can be folded into the mapping process). Also, consider making resource materials (see Chapter 13 of Getting it Right) available to work group participants in advance of the session so that they can be familiar with the process and come to the session prepared to map.

  3. The local coordinator may sit down with the team chair and/or the policy team to review the final list of persons who are planning to attend each session in order to ensure a comprehensive group of participants.

  4. Prior to the mapping sessions, it should be determined who will take notes during the session. It is recommended that at least one staff person assist the facilitator in capturing the discussion during the sessions. The team should also determine who will be responsible (facilitator, local coordinator, and/or other policy team members or staff) for putting all the “pieces” of the map together in one diagram in an easy-to-view format.

  5. Select a room with a considerable amount of wall space, where flip chart paper can be posted from end to end. Rooms with walls that do not permit (or are not conducive to) taping lots of paper to the wall should be avoided. The facilitator will need to be provided with a full pad of flip chart paper, a good set of flip chart markers, and a roll of masking tape.

  6. While not a necessity, it is recommended that jurisdictions bring in an outside facilitator to facilitate each mapping work group session. The session will begin with introductions of all participants and a brief overview by the facilitator of the purpose of the process. You may wish to provide a handout on the mapping process. (A sample handout is provided in Appendix 2.) Following this, the facilitator will guide the work group through the development of their component of the system map. (It is possible, albeit rare, that time will run out before the work is completed. In this case, the facilitator will dialogue with the work group about the best way to complete the map.)

  7. During or following each work group session, the facilitator should receive a complete list of the individuals participating in each session, including name, title, agency, and full contact information, for the purposes of seeking further information, receiving feedback on the accuracy of the map, and documenting those who contributed to its development.

  8. At the conclusion of the session, the facilitator should make a plan with the work group to review the final, transcribed portion of the work group’s portion of the map.

  9. Because of the complexity of the entire system and the desire to capture a “picture” of the system on paper, it is not possible to include on a flow chart every detail about a particular decision in the criminal justice system. For this reason, the person(s) transcribing the map and notes may wish to use footnotes that provide additional narrative. (See the example provided for an idea of how one jurisdiction captured its system map—and accompanying map notations—on paper.)

  10. Once the system map components have been reviewed by each work group, a final draft of the entire map should be presented to and reviewed by the policy team. For this meeting, a large share of the full team meeting time should be devoted to reviewing and discussing the map—first to ensure its completeness and accuracy, and then to discuss its implications.

  11. Once the mapping activity is fully completed, the team should prepare for the next, more in-depth step of the decision point analysis process.[1]


Mapping the Entire System

In Yamhill County, Oregon, the policy team created three separate maps in order to ensure that the justice system processes were adequately captured for the mentally ill, chemically dependent, and general offender population. To link the multiple maps, a process step was included in the main map that referenced a different track. The main and “mental health track” maps are provided.

  • For each work group session, carefully select a diverse group of individuals who have the most knowledge and perspective about both the formal policy/decision making and informal decision making that occurs at each decision point.

  • The number of individuals invited to attend each work group session should be considered—large enough to ensure representation, knowledge, and diversity, but not overly large as to be unworkable (ideally, about 10–15 people in each work group session).

  • Some individuals may have critical knowledge about more than one decision point and should be asked to attend more than one work group session, as appropriate. Likewise, some decision points may overlap more than others (for example, arrest and pretrial status or institutional and community interventions). In this case, consider whether it makes sense to combine decision point work groups into one group.

  • Consider sequencing work group sessions from the earliest decision point (arrest) to the latest decision point (discharge from supervision). For example, those invited to attend the work group session on the arrest decision point might be scheduled from 9:00–11:00 a.m.; pretrial status from 11:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m., and so forth.

  • Leave completed sections of the map hanging on the wall as each “new” work group convenes; visually, this will provide an overview of how each decision point “links” to the last one.

  • Assure that adequate time is devoted to each decision point; it may not be possible to complete an initial map of all of the decision points in one day.

  • Consider color coding the map or using sticky notes to flag questions that arise for further exploration, to identify specific processes for special populations (for example, domestic violence offenders) that may depart from the typical decision process, to identify gaps in current decision making, to note strategies that are being considered or implemented but that are not currently part of the decision making process, or to note other pertinent issues identified by the work group.

  • Consider conducting a “debriefing” session at the conclusion of the mapping work group sessions with the facilitator, local coordinator, and policy team members assigned to shepherding the mapping process. The debriefing session will provide an opportunity to discuss how well they think the mapping work group sessions captured information about each decision point, confirm a work plan for completing the map, identify an upcoming policy team meeting to discuss the map in more detail, and discuss any other issues or logistics that need to be resolved before moving forward.


[1] See 3b: Conducting a Policy and Practice Analysis.