By Sam Schaeffer
From the 1970s until just a few years ago, “tough on crime” policies such as militarized policing, severe sentencing laws and eliminating services like prison education defined our approach to criminal justice.
Officials in both parties championed these approaches despite evidence showing they were ineffective, created untenable costs and eviscerated communities. Too frequently, policy decisions were based on emotion and political whims instead of evidence and outcomes. The result has been huge social and economic costs, particularly for communities of color.
More than 2.3 million people are in jails, prisons and detention centers in this country. The United States spends $82 billion annually on corrections. Many states spend more on prison-related expenses than they spend on education or health. The return on that investment is dismal — nearly two-thirds of those released will be reincarcerated within five years.
We must continue to shift our collective anti-recidivism efforts to focus on outcomes, which a handful of nonprofits and governments have demonstrated is possible. Today, governments have the opportunity to take a strong lead as the stakeholders with the most power to use dollars and policies to drive lasting, positive change.
In recent years, government leaders have begun using data to identify ineffective and harmful policies and implement reforms. For example, numerous states have participated in initiatives led by the Council for State Governments Justice Center and the Pew Foundation that have helped save millions in corrections costs.
One bi-partisan effort in Pennsylvania repurposed $100 million in community corrections funding to target services to individuals’ levels of need. Providers were also measured against baseline outcomes and incentivized to drive recidivism below statewide averages.
Governments are also increasingly partnering with nonprofits in pursuit of better outcomes. Many nonprofits today are not only changing thousands of lives, they are helping transform how the justice system uses data and allocates funding.
I worked in the U.S. Senate for many years and saw minimal chance for reform in the mid-2000s, so I joined the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a nonprofit focused on outcomes, with the opportunity to scale and model systems change. Today, CEO serves nearly 5,000 people across six states. Participants come through our doors just days or weeks after their release and begin working, many in their first job ever.
To prepare them for workplace success, we had to commit to outcomes. First, we established a theory of change that clarified our service model, holding ourselves accountable to a handful of short- and long-term outcomes, including job placement, long-term retention, as well as reduced reconvictions and incarcerations. We became experts on delivering a single service — employment — and rely on partners to address housing, health care and other equally important resettlement resources.
Second, we built a database that captures every single participant activity in the cloud, and put that data in the hands of staff. This brought about a culture change at CEO, demanding a radical transparency to follow what the numbers say, admit when something isn’t working and adjust in real time to support our clients more effectively.
Third, we submitted CEO to multiple evaluations. We already knew our efforts reduced recidivism over three years, but we learned that we do it really well for a very specific population — high-risk individuals who come to us within three months of release — and refined our recruitment to those we could best serve. We also learned that participants weren’t staying employed consistently when placed in unsubsidized jobs: big gains in the first year of employment faded without continuing support. So CEO began to invest heavily in job retention efforts, and we have seen our numbers improve.
Government can use these same principles to guide structural reforms on a large scale. By using data, they can identify and address the most damaging problems first. By requiring administrators to capture and use data, leaders can make real-time programmatic adjustments. Enhanced program evaluation can help them determine what works and direct resources accordingly.
Every year, approximately 615,000 men and woman are released from prisons across the country. In the years to come, sentencing reform might increase this number. The Center for Employment Opportunities and other outcomes-focused providers can serve a lot of them — but nowhere near all. Governments, however, can use data to implement policies that increase effective services and improve outcomes — and create a culture that turns away from damaging and expensive policies toward reforms that can truly transform our criminal justice system.