By Amalia Mejia.

In an effort to change tactics in the “war on crime,” California has undertaken numerous strategies to amend the broken criminal justice system. Like many others, I have found it appalling to witness so many individuals fall into a perpetual cycle of recidivism that impacts the entire family and community. But in a relatively short period of time, we have witnessed changes in the criminal justice system as a result of 2011 Public Safety Realignment, Proposition 47 and Proposition 57. Based on these recent policy shifts, local government leaders have more incentive to apply effective practices that are based on evidence, research and data collection and achieve better public safety outcomes.

When I began examining the criminal justice system while pursuing my Master’s a few years ago, I was introduced to econometrics and data analysis implications on social policy. It allowed me to gain a different perspective in addressing our criminal justice system. Many times we are moved by anecdotal stories that are compelling but do not provide solutions. The data can provide solutions, and that’s where the Results First Initiative comes into play.

The Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, works with select states and counties to implement an innovative cost-benefit analysis approach that helps them invest in policies and programs that are proven to work. Results First allows counties to use rigorous research to determine the effectiveness of a program and increase public safety in their communities.

Why is this important? Counties have limited resources, and through data and research, they are able to invest in programs that are projected to reduce recidivism and be cost-beneficial. In order to improve public safety, jurisdictions need to understand what programs they are providing, what the research says about their effectiveness, and how to ensure they are effectively implemented. There are many variables to account for in the criminal justice system and providing the offender population with an evidence-based program that targets their criminogenic needs is just one factor. Through the use of evidence-based programs that have been proven to work, offenders can change their behavior and successfully avoid further criminal activity. That can lead to reduced recidivism rates, an overall reduction in cost to the criminal justice system and improved public safety outcomes.

The California counties that have partnered with Results First have been able to assess their criminal justice programs based on a benefit-cost model coupled with evidence-based programming changes in their criminal justice system. Santa Barbara County, the first California county to join Results First, has implemented an outcomes-based funding model in its Community Corrections Partnership decision-making process. This allows them to project return on investment for programs that are being considered for funding. With this approach, counties are able to move away from anecdote toward research-informed and cost-effective decision-making.

When the county provides effective programming to address the criminal justice system, it is not only a sound financial decision but also ensures the community is using the tools necessary to maximize public safety. Santa Cruz County has been able to use Results First to move into a performance-based contracting RFP for their Community-Based Organizations (CBOs). They are using the Results First Clearinghouse to select effective criminal justice programs and asking their CBOs to collect data to ensure accountability for results. Other counties applying the Results First tools into their policy and budget process are Kern, Fresno, Santa Clara, Ventura, Solano, and Nevada.

Research is often conducted to understand the effectiveness of programs; however, due to the lack of uniformity, it can be cumbersome to understand the research and difficult to translate them to practice. My goal with Results First is to help counties understand the research and make it applicable to policy-making and budgeting. The end result should be safer communities, lower costs, and an end to the cycle of recidivism.

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Amalia Mejia is the CSAC Results First Program Coordinator.

Originally posted at the California State Association of Counties.