Qualitative questions and methods

Some general questions that are better suited for qualitative research include

  • How do people who are arrested or detained in this county experience the local justice system?
  • How do people who are arrested or detained perceive the fairness, respect, and transparency of treatment by local institutions?
  • How do people working in local institutions perceive the goals, fairness, equity, and/or effectiveness of current policies and practices?
  • What obstacles do people face at various stages of the system, from police contact to release from jail?
  • What are the narratives that are most prevalent in the local community about the causes of crime, the impacts of jail, and/or other alternative approaches?

Qualitative research requires thoughtful design to ensure that the data collection tools are appropriate and feasible. Some common data collection methods include

  • interviews and/or focus groups of formerly and currently incarcerated people, system actors, service providers, community advocates, and elected officials;
  • court watching (both virtually and in person); and
  • observations of community events, forums, or services related to criminal legal system issues.

You may also consider a system-mapping exercise that will allow you to chart the course of local system operations from the point of arrest through post-conviction supervision. This involves facilitating a multi-stakeholder discussion in which people working in different parts of the local system and service providers chart out and explain what agencies, decisions, criteria, and options operate at each stage of the criminal legal system process. Doing this type of exercise not only provides an opportunity for people who work in and with the system to convene and collaborate, it can also help flag issues or possible areas for solutions. A related strategy is the Sequential Intercept Model, which is a similar process but with a tight focus on mental health and substance use issues.