Criminal Justice Reform and Recidivism Reduction

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Criminal Justice Reform and Recidivism Reduction

Myrstol, Brad A.; & Armstrong, Barbara. (2016). "Criminal Justice Reform and Recidivism Reduction." Alaska Justice Forum 32(4): 1, 10-12 (Winter 2016). This article briefly examines evidence-based approach to policymaking in criminal justice and the two conceptual pillars that serve as the foundation of this strategy: effectiveness and efficiency. The article also describes the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, a "smart justice" approach to reducing recidivism under the auspices of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that is being led in Alaska by the Alaska Justice Information Center (AJiC), housed in the UAA Justice Center.
Links to publications mentioned in this article last verified 6 Sep 2016.

Across the country, the rate of offender recidivism is high, the costs of incarceration are rising, and the money to fund the criminal justice system is shrinking. The call for criminal justice reform is being heard nationwide and in Alaska. Our state, in particular, is facing a funding crisis for all programs due to the dramatic decrease in oil prices and the resulting decline in state revenues, and Alaska's leaders are responding to the urgency of the situation. Initiatives have been launched in Alaska to reduce correctional populations, lower recidivism rates, and decrease costs while holding offenders accountable for harm to victims and the community, and keeping the public safe. (An earlier Alaska Justice Forum article, "Smart Justice in Alaska" (Summer/Fall 2015), described the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and the Results First Initiative in Alaska and their evidence-based approaches to criminal justice reform.) Exploding expenditures coupled with persistently high recidivism rates have created dual criminal justice crises in Alaska: a cost crisis related to the operation of the criminal justice system in general, and the Department of Corrections (DOC) in particular, as well as a crisis in confidence that the criminal justice system can achieve its public safety objectives.

This current situation provides a tremendous opportunity to critically examine existing policies and practices and to explore innovative solutions to the problems of cost and confidence confronting Alaska's criminal justice system. The state is demonstrating an unprecedented commitment to evidence-based policymaking in criminal justice through the establishment of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission (Commission) and other efforts. The Justice Reinvestment Report released by the Commission in December 2015 contains 21 recommendations for criminal justice reform that are based on peer-reviewed research (see "Justice Reinvestment Report," page 4). As of this writing, SB 91, Omnibus Criminal Law & Procedure; Corrections, has been introduced in the Alaska Legislature and addresses many of the criminal justice reform issues in the Commission's recommendations. This article briefly examines the evidence-based approach to policymaking in criminal justice and the two conceptual pillars that serve as the foundation of this strategy: effectiveness and efficiency. There is also a description of the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, a "smart justice" approach to reducing recidivism under the auspices of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that is being led in our state by the Alaska Justice Information Center (AJiC), housed in the UAA Justice Center.

Pillars of Effective Recidivism Reduction

The two conceptual pillars anchoring the state's evidence-based policymaking efforts are: (1) effectiveness and (2) efficiency. Effectiveness refers to the ability of the criminal justice system to achieve its stated objectives, not the means used to get there. Rather than focusing on criminal justice outputs-for example, the number of arrests, number of admissions to prison, or the number of program participants-effectiveness emphasizes outcomes of criminal justice policies, programs, and practices.

Beyond the issue of effectiveness are questions pertaining to the efficiency with which criminal justice policies and programs achieve their objectives. When we speak of efficiency, we are referring to the relationship between policy/program outcomes and the costs associated with achieving them. For the mathematically inclined, this translates to the ratio of outcomes for each unit of budgetary input. The benefit of focusing on efficiency, rather than focusing only on effectiveness, is that it provides additional-and important-information that allows for a direct comparison of two (or more) effective policies or programs.

Focusing on Effectiveness: The RNR Model

Criminal justice reform has become synonymous with one specific criminal justice policy outcome: recidivism reduction. Guiding the criminal justice reform efforts in Alaska and in other states is what is referred to as the RNR Model (Risk-Need-Responsivity). The RNR Model sets forth three core propositions or principles.

First among these is the notion that criminal justice resources should be prioritized according to recidivism risk. According to this risk principle, the level of criminal justice programming should match (or be proportional with) recidivism risk so that high intensity services are reserved for moderate- or high-risk offenders.

Second, the criminogenic need principle asserts that criminal justice interventions should specifically address those factors that have been shown to impact the likelihood of reoffending. These are dynamic risk and protective factors that can change over time and are therefore amenable to programmatic treatment/intervention.

The third principle, responsivity, calls attention to personal, cognitive, and social factors that impede or enhance the effectiveness of criminal justice interventions. According to this responsivity principle, criminal justice interventions should be tailored to take into account these factors. Taken together, the RNR Model helps criminal justice practitioners identify who should receive treatment (risk principle), what should be treated (the criminogenic need principle), and how the treatment should be administered (responsivity principle). Effective criminal justice programs follow this comprehensive model.

The RNR model calls for using appropriate assessment tools to measure recidivism risk of individual offenders, identifying offenders with moderate to high risk of offending, determining individual risk factors and types of programs that would be most effective, and implementing those programs and treatments. There is no "one-size-fits-all" program or treatment for reducing recidivism. A key factor in effective programs was noted by James Bonta and D.A. Andrews in their 2007 study in Canada; they stress the need to "maximize the offender's ability to learn from rehabilitative intervention by providing cognitive behavioral treatment and tailoring the intervention to the learning style, motivation, abilities and strengths of the offender." They underscore that it is unrealistic to assume that recidivism can be totally eradicated, but by using a collaborative approach, training staff involved in the process, and committing to resources to provide services, a level of success can be achieved.

Effectiveness and Efficiency: The Results First Cost-Benefit Model

Getting results in the most cost-effective way possible helps states to prioritize investments in criminal justice programs. Investing in programs that work is just the first step; it is not the only step. Once effective programs have been identified, the next step is to examine how cost-effective these criminal justice programs are. That is, what are the expected returns on the investments states are making?

This approach allows states such as Alaska to identify criminal justice programs that work, calculate costs and benefits for each program, provide side-by-side comparisons of programs according to projected cost and benefits, and then use this information to assist with funding prioritization. In this way, funding decisions incorporate knowledge of both programs' relative effectiveness and efficiency. The rewards of the Results First method of cost-benefit analyses go well beyond simply arriving at a cost-benefit ratio. Once programs have been thoroughly inventoried, their effectiveness (as reported in scientific literature) documented, their costs and benefits calculated, and their respective returns on investment (ROIs) estimated, policymakers have the ability to better understand the policy and funding options available to them. Importantly, the Results First framework is not intended to be merely a cost-cutting exercise. It is intended to be a decision-making tool, not a decision-making rule. The goal is to provide policymakers with additional information on which to base decisions about resource allocation.

Return on Investment: Alaska's Adult Criminal Justice Programs

As noted earlier, the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative (RFI) is being led by AJiC. Alaska's Results First Initiative is examining both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the state's adult criminal justice programs by conducting a comprehensive review of the full array of programs funded by the state. The review includes a thorough inventory of state-funded programs, determining the proportion of those programs that are evidence-based, and detailing both the costs of operating those programs, as well as the benefits derived from them via reductions in offender recidivism.

AJiC and its state agency partners are engaged in collecting and compiling all of this detailed programmatic, budgetary, and recidivism information. The data gathered in the coming months will be used to develop specific cost-benefit estimates for the state's adult criminal justice programs. Once completed, the results of this work will be disseminated to criminal justice policymakers in each branch of government to assist them in their continued efforts to reform and improve Alaska's criminal justice system.

Since 2011, 22 other states and 4 counties have joined the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative (Alaska was the 19th state to do so). Nationwide since 2007, a total of 31 states have been engaged in some aspect of evidence-based criminal justice reform. And these states are seeing tremendous results. They have been able to identify and better understand which of their adult criminal justice programs are evidence-based, and calculate the costs and benefits of each program. This information has enabled states to make important decisions about which programs to invest in to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.


The State of Alaska has made a significant commitment to criminal justice reform that maintains public safety while reducing recidivism and costs related to incarceration. As Alaska legislators and policymakers grapple with the difficult issues of resource allocation in a world with oil at ever-lower prices, evidence-based research can assist with prioritizing resources.

As Alaskans, we are engaging for the first time in a process that enumerates the type and number of criminal justice programs, explores the extent to which these programs are evidence-based, and identifies the amount of state funds allocated to these programs. By engaging in this process, policymakers will be able to assess the benefits the state expects to achieve in terms of reduced reoffending and revictimization; reduced costs of criminal justice administration, especially incarceration; as well as the reduced costs of victimization. The current fiscal crisis presents Alaska with both challenge and opportunity. The challenge is how to bring criminal justice expenditures in line with fiscal realities. The opportunity presented to Alaska is to use an evidence-based process to inform the difficult decisions that lie ahead.

Brad A. Myrstol is the director of the Alaska Justice Information Center and a member of the Justice Center faculty. Barbara Armstrong is the editor of the Alaska Justice Forum.

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