Resource Development Associates

Measuring Justice System Effectiveness: Looking Beyond Recidivism

By Ardavan Davaran, Ph.D.

Recidivism is considered by probation and parole systems to be the primary measure of their own effectiveness, as well as the effectiveness of reentry services, which can include services such as mental health, substance use, employment, education, and housing, among others. However, justice reform scholars and reformists Jeffrey A. Butts and Vincent Schiraldi suggest in their recent publication, Recidivism Reconsidered: Preserving the Community Justice Mission of Community Corrections, that using recidivism as the sole measure of effectiveness is problematic because “recidivism misleads policymakers and the public, encourages inappropriate comparisons of dissimilar populations, and focuses policy on negative rather than positive outcomes.”

Butts and Schiraldi argue that focusing on recidivism as evidence of justice system and intervention effectiveness confuses a measure that is largely a product of complex, bureaucratic decision-making with measures of individual-level behavior change. Many factors, including who commits an offense, the nature of an offense, location of an offense, inclination of residents to trust the police and report crimes, and local law enforcement policy and behavior, all impact the extent to which criminal activity is officially processed. As a result, using recidivism to judge the effectiveness of justice interventions may even be harmful, as recidivism measures have a tendency to reinforce racial and class biases that underlay the criminal justice system.

Additionally, it is problematic to use a simple measure of recidivism to compare the effectiveness of probation and parole departments or reentry programs that often serve populations that are different across socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., age, race, gender) and criminogenic risk factors (e.g., prior criminal records, education level, housing status, employment status, substance use), among others (e.g., mental illness), because different populations demonstrate different recidivism probabilities.

RDA partners with city and county justice agencies across California to evaluate reentry systems and programs that aim to help individuals who are incarcerated transition successfully into their communities after they are released. RDA encourages our clients to assess justice effectiveness with a number of measures, including the extent to which justice partners effectively connect clients with appropriate reentry programs, and once connected, the extent to which reentry programs successfully deliver the services they are contracted to provide. As a part of our current Assembly Bill (AB) 109 evaluation in Sonoma County, for instance, we are not only assessing recidivism; we are also evaluating successes and challenges connecting probation clients with appropriate services, and the extent to which probation clients enrolled in services achieve expected program outcomes that mitigate or reduce criminal behavior. Whereas a recidivism lens would only assess whether individuals with needs who receive parenting/family reunification services in Sonoma County have lower rates of recidivism than those who do not, RDA’s approach will measure the extent to which individuals receiving these services are able to have their visitation rights restored, for instance, which may support their long term desistance from crime, whether they experience a recidivism occurrence or not.

By examining a more comprehensive set of positive outcomes, in addition to recidivism, RDA clients are better positioned to improve services and systems and achieve greater positive impacts in their communities.

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