Trend Spotting

Chiseled into the cornerstone of the Department of Archives Building in Washington, D.C., is the admonition that "The past is prologue." Other proverbs, such as "Ignore the lessons of the past and be doomed to repeat them" and "There is nothing new under the sun," could lead to questions regarding the wisdom of a column devoted to trends. However, none of the sayings suggest we dwell in the past, just respect the lessons learned and apply the good ones to future choices. Trends are subtle (or not so subtle) departures from what we did to what we can become.

For the past 30 years in the justice planning arena, I have attempted to outwit the past and predict the future. Sometimes fortune smiled, but certainly not with a consistency that would have elevated me to the status of guru. Who among us, for example, would have predicted that in the 1980s judges in Florida would have decreed "no-bond" for crack cocaine possession, resulting in the addition of 10,000 new pretrial bed spaces in 10 years? Most of us were too busy draining the swamp to be concerned about the lurking alligators.

Twenty years ago, we may have missed a number of signals within the correctional community that led to the largest non-military capital expenditure since the interstate highway program. As the American dream materialized, we demanded the capture of those who threaten our dreams. Consequently, in one decade, we spent more public dollars to apprehend, adjudicate, incarcerate, and supervise dream-snatchers than the gross domestic product of all the nations in the Southern Hemisphere.

Could this happen again? Are we any better at predicting reverse trends (as we have been experiencing during the past several years)? Should we even worry about that which we have little or no control? The answer is yes! But how?

This column regularly will confront indicators as perceived by enlightened soothsayers from all corners of the justice system. These clairvoyant practitioners dress normally and mostly are uncelebrated, even though they often have incredibly perceptive insight into indicators that may determine future landscapes. I hope that through a regular discussion of the indicators, gleaned from a significant professional cross section, we can better manage whatever changes we encounter. This shift may require periodic ventures outside the box.

Historically, some have shown a willingness to step outside the penumbra and translate trends into new benchmarks. Remember the revolutionary term direct supervision? Or private prisons? Or touchscreen? All these trends, among countless others, altered the debate and ultimately changed everything from personnel policies to Division 17 specifications.

Trend spotting requires insight with a healthy dose of raw courage since political capital and legal tender is necessary to translate a trend into a program, a product, or a person. Topics worthy of consideration range from the impact of crowding on recidivism and managing special needs populations to designing for young offenders and controlling energy costs, among limitless other choices. As fellow correctional travelers, we could benefit from a periodic assessment of what we should know rather than just what we do know.

The focus of this column will be the discussion of correctional trends with an emphasis on correcting, as distinct from apprehending, adjudicating, or supervising. However, since corrections exists as a partner with the entire justice system, trend spotting will cross all functional boundaries. The aim is to improve anticipation skills; to sharpen responsiveness by becoming better change-managers; and to transfer information that improves the odds that as correctional professionals, we serve our customers more effectively and efficiently.

This column regularly will solicit the views and opinions of several practitioners on a single trend, as well as broadcast the voice of a lone prophet on the convergence of many trends. The focus always will be to increase awareness and inspire consideration of happenings that may make history in the not too distant future. I urge your response and welcome your views.

Reading the cornerstone on the Department of Archives Building in 1970 was one of those watershed moments in my career and continues to serve as a reminder that all change is evolutionary. However, rather than remain in the past, we are challenged to fully engage the future with a healthy respect for trends that became a part of history. I look forward to the forum this column will create for the discussion of emerging trends.

Steven A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC. in Columbia, S.C. He can be contacted by e-mail,