You Get What You Measure: New Performance Indicators Needed to Gauge Progress of Criminal Justice Reform
Date:  06-12-2018

Adam Gelb proposes two "new and nuanced" indicators to discern if objectives are met
From Adam Gelb’s report You Get What You Measure: New Performance Indicators Needed to Gauge Progress of Criminal Justice Reform, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Harvard Kennedy School, May 2018:

After nearly 40 years of uninterrupted expansion that put one in 100 adults behind bars (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014) and one in 31 under some form of correctional control (U.S Department of Justice, 2015), the U.S. penal system has undergone a wave of reforms. In the states and at the federal level, the recent reforms have reduced incarceration and supervision rates while the crime rate has sunk to half-century lows (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2016). These tandem trends have convinced many policy makers and a large majority of the public that locking up and monitoring more and more people for longer and longer periods of time is neither the only nor the best way to protect public safety.

Shifting national attitudes about crime and punishment have led to calls for even more aggressive reforms to criminal penalties and deeper reductions in correctional populations. Elected officials and opinion leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum have begun a dialogue about what it would mean — and take — to cut the current prison population in half, a once far-fetched fantasy that several advocacy groups have adopted as their outright objective. Tracking the sheer number of incarcerated individuals and those under correctional supervision is essential but not enough to know whether we are making progress toward a more fair and effective criminal justice system. To understand whether these fundamental aims are being achieved, we need at least two new and more nuanced indicators:

  • Correctional Population Composition: This measure would track the profile, or composition, of the prison and supervision populations. It would shed light on the critical question of what percentage of these population consist of those who pose a threat to public safety, and how many are people who could safely pay their debt to society in less expensive and more effective ways.

  • Recidivism by Risk: A second metric would adjust recidivism rates to account for the changing composition of persons under correctional control. It would help gauge how well corrections agencies are succeeding with individuals across the risk spectrum, and guard against perceptions of failure if recidivism rates rise due to the higher-risk composition of caseloads rather than sagging performance.

    Read the full report here.