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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

February 14, 2011

Erroneous Cost Benefit Analysis of Criminal Justice Programs

The large budget deficits facing both the State of Wisconsin and the federal government will undoubtedly result in reductions in the budgets of many government programs. Some in government are attempting to integrate basic market principles directly into the construction of government programs. For example, grant programs that use investment principles. See For Federal Programs, a Taste of Market Discipline .

Many in government are attempting to evaluate the results of their efforts—to assess the benefits of the program to allow comparison with the costs. The political fight over the funding for government programs often involves attempting to determine which programs have benefits that exceed their costs. A large part of the push for “evidence-based” evaluation of criminal justice programs is to ascertain whether the benefits of a government program exceed its costs.

Those of us in leadership positions within government service have the responsibility to ensure that our program evaluations are legitimate and intellectually rigorous, and not merely a sophistic justification of a favorite program. Incorrect information to guide policy decisions is worse than no information. I would rather drive a car that I know doesn’t have a speedometer than one that I don’t know has a defective speedometer.

I have recently listened to and read reports of evaluations of criminal justice programs that don’t stand-up to basic program evaluation techniques. One glaring error is evaluating the worth of a treatment court in terms of the value of the reduction in the number of days of jail defendants in the program receive over the number of days jail defendants not in the program receive. This comparison is erroneous.

The false comparison goes like this. The cost to the county to house someone in jail is $65 per day. If someone is sentenced under the treatment court program, they get, for example, 10 days in jail, and if they successfully complete treatment court, they don’t have to spend any additional time in jail. If someone does not successfully complete treatment court, they are then sentenced to an additional 100 days in jail. Therefore, the treatment court saves the county 100 days in jail for every defendant who successfully completes treatment court. At a cost of $65.00 per day of jail, the county saves $6,500 for the 100 days. This $6,500 is then compared against the cost of the treatment court, (let’s assume $2,500 per participant) to come to the erroneous conclusion that the benefits of the treatment court are greater than the costs of the treatment court.

Here is why this is an erroneous comparison. The calculated benefits of the treatment court are not the result of the treatment the defendants obtained by participating in the treatment court, but rather a result of a reduction in the jail sentence that has also been added as a component of the treatment court program. A second variable has been introduced. An accurate analysis would be to compare the costs and benefits of 10 days in jail without treatment court with 10 days in jail with treatment (or 110 days in jail with treatment court with just 110 days in jail).

The reduced jail costs are not the result of a reduction in new crimes that result in fewer days of incarceration due to participation in treatment court. The reduced jail costs are merely the result of eliminating 100 days of jail treatment as part of the treatment regiment. As most of the research on the deterrent value of incarceration shows that an extra 100 days in jail will do very little to reduce recidivism regardless of participation in any other program, the most efficient strategy may be to just eliminate the extra 100 days of jail and move on, or to use the conventional strategies of deferred prosecution agreements or probation to ensure treatment rather than use a more resource intensive treatment court.

If a treatment court is found statistically effective in reducing recidivism, is this reduction the result of the treatment alone or is the court component, beyond coercing treatment, a significant operant variable? If the court component is a significant operant variable, what is it about the court component that makes it so? How could that component be delivered most efficiently? Those questions have not yet been answered by the research, and the erroneous comparison certainly does nothing to answer any of them.

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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