Evidence-Based Decision Making: The Increasing Use of Research in our Criminal Justice System

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Public
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There is a growing trend in the criminal justice field to integrate evidence-based decision making, or EBDM, into local justice systems.  At its simplest, EBDM can be described as the practice of using what has been proven to work.  It places the primary reliance upon current and sound research, rather than upon anecdotal information, guesswork, or solely the experience of an individual.  While the use of evidence-based decision making is relatively new to the field of criminal justice, the healthcare industry has embraced EBDM for sometime.

The promise of evidence-based decision making is that it produces more consistent and better outcomes, as confirmed by the underlying research.  In the criminal justice system, the benefits include the implementation of policies and practices that meet the goals of maximizing public safety, reducing the risk of reoffending, more appropriate allocation of limited resources, and reducing costs.

Wisconsin is at the forefront of the trend towards the introduction of EBDM into its criminal justice systems.  Substantial efforts are underway to integrate evidence-based decision making into our local criminal justice systems.  Both Eau Claire County and Milwaukee County are currently researching and applying the methodologies and processes of EBDM into their respective criminal justice systems.  The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) has provided great support in these efforts: NIC honored Eau Claire County and Milwaukee County as two of three jurisdictions among a nationwide pool of candidates to receive full technical assistance grants focusing on EBDM.  As recipients of two of the three awards, both Eau Claire and Milwaukee are receiving the highest level of technical assistance offered by NIC.

Eau Claire and Milwaukee have already seen practical impacts from the adoption of risk assessment screening after an individual is arrested, but before his or her first court appearance.  Assessment tools help to guide the court’s decision on issues such as bail amount and conditions.  Use of this information appropriately places defendants on a track that maximizes the benefits previously listed.

The integration of evidence-based decision making into our criminal justice systems requires a substantial level of expertise and coordination.  Both of these elements are reflected in the partnerships NIC has formed in Eau Claire and Milwaukee, specifically with the respective county criminal justice coordinating councils.  EBDM has also had an impact on state policymakers as evidenced by increased resources for treatment, diversion, and drug courts in the most recent state budget as well as the formation of Wisconsin’s first Statewide Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

All that is learned through these partnerships will help to serve as a model for other Wisconsin counties and for other jurisdictions across our country.

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One Response to “Evidence-Based Decision Making: The Increasing Use of Research in our Criminal Justice System”

  1. Ellen Henak Says:

    Defense attorneys especially must be aware of the problem of confirmation bias as courts try to embrace evidence-based decision making. A judge that believes that a particular defendant is dangerous often will ignore the assessment in front of them, claiming that it must be wrong, if that assessment suggests that less danger than expected. While one would think it would work the opposite way–and cause a judge to ignore an assessment if it suggests that a defendant is more dangerous than expected, the general belief that defendants are dangerous tends to prevent this outcome.

    We have long seen this “cherry-picking” of evidence in the area of sexually violent person commitment. It now is spreading to the criminal area, as became clear at early DOC trainings on COMPAS when the discussion of when to ignore the assessments occurred. DOC trainers suggested seemed to have criteria for when to ignore assessment that seemed to suggest too little dangerousness but were stumped and seemed never to have considered the idea that the assessment could suggest too much dangerousness.

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