The problems facing our justice system are well-documented. Despite the high cost of incarceration, prisons are often overcrowded, inmates have poor access to services, and individuals who were previously involved in the justice system face barriers to employment and well-being when they re-enter society, making them likely to recidivate.
Unfortunately, we know little about the effectiveness of policies and programs that work to address these problems because few are evaluated using rigorous research methods like randomized control trials (RCTs) or strong quasi-experimental methods. As a result, many programs and policies are being replicated and implemented before they have a solid evidence base.
Where evidence is needed most
Although rigorous research is needed throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems, there are a few areas where additional evidence would be especially helpful to inform ongoing policy debates:
- Bail reform. The cash bail system unfairly punishes defendants who cannot afford bail and are detained before trial. Several alternatives have been proposed, but rigorous research is needed to evaluate policy options, including charitable or revolving bail funds, unsecured bail bonds, assessments to determine defendants’ flight risk or risk to public safety, intensive pretrial supervision in lieu of bail for misdemeanor defendants, and the elimination of cash bail altogether. Charitable bail funds are being established in several cities across the country, including New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Miami, and St. Louis. In California, the state legislature is considering a bill to replace the cash bail system with pretrial services that would assess risk to the public and chance of failing to appear at court, provide reminders about court dates, and track defendants’ progress through the system.
- Diversion programs for young adults. We know very little about how to best serve young adults in the justice system. Research on young adult brain development and behavior indicate that they are more likely to take risks and get in trouble, but high recidivism rates suggest the current system is not reducing misbehavior. In response, advocates and scholars are urging the field to limit young adults’ contact with the justice system and to tailor interventions to their needs. Research is needed to identify successful programs for them, to develop evidence-based practices, and to learn more about the implementation of programs around the country.
- Reentry programs. Many experts believe that employment is a key factor in reducing recidivism. Yet ex-offenders have more trouble finding jobs and work less than similar individuals who were not incarcerated, and employers are less likely to hire people with criminal records (Apel and Sweeten 2010; Raphael 2007; Western et al. 2001; Holzer et al. 2007; Pager 2007). Evaluations of the Re-Integration of Ex-Offenders and Transitional Jobs Re-Entry Demonstration programs showed some positive impacts on employment and earnings but no significant effects on recidivism. Newer efforts such as the Department of Labor’s Linking to Employment Activities Pre-Release program are trying to address these issues, but more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of re-entry programs.
So how can we generate high quality evidence to inform policymaking throughout the justice system?
First, program officers and grant makers should engage researchers as thought partners early in the planning process, before program implementation. Early engagement improves researchers’ ability to use rigorous study designs, such as RCTs; gives them time to build trust with stakeholders and partners in the justice system; and helps them avoid common design challenges.
Second, implementing an RCT in the justice context may be more challenging than in other policy areas, such as education or employment, therefore an experiment may not be the best design for some justice system evaluations. In some cases, the best approach is to conduct feasibility assessments or implementation studies, provide evaluation technical assistance, and help partners focus on policies and programs that show potential. This iterative learning process can highlight innovative programs and interventions that may be appropriate for experimental evaluation.
Third, remember that significantly increasing employment and reducing recidivism for ex-offenders is difficult. Null effects should not necessarily be stopping points. Investigation of the sources of null effects can uncover programmatic issues that impede success and, in some cases, a null effect can actually be a sign of success. For example, in programs that pay bail for poor defendants, administrators are interested in the effect of receiving bail on recidivism. If being released to the community instead of being detained has no effect on subsequent criminal activity, the bail program is successful. Strong studies that produce null effects can make important contributions to the field.
Rigorous research is critical to building fair and effective criminal and juvenile justice systems in communities across the United States. We look forward to partnering with stakeholders in the justice system at the community, state, and federal levels to continue improving our knowledge of effective practice.