The Argument For Evidence-Based Approaches To Criminal Justice

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What if doctors prescribed the same treatment to every patient with a particular symptom, without trying to diagnose its cause? Or if they offered powerful medications, without figuring out if they worked? That, Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation argues, is how the U.S. criminal-justice system presently operates, reports The Atlantic.

“We’re still basing the sanction on the specific offense they’ve committed,” Levin said, without attempting to determine its underlying causes. “We need to diagnose someone as soon as they’re arrested, and figure out what would reduce their criminogenic needs.”

The argument is part of a push by Levin and others to overhaul the criminal-justice system with evidence-based programs. Levin spoke yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

“Releasing people directly from solitary confinement to the public, which we know happens thousands of times a year? It’s illogical,” Levin said. Those inmates aren’t equipped to reintegrate directly into society, and face high recidivism rates. “By and large, we ought to be focusing on getting results rather than getting even.”

Skeptics of data-driven approaches point to cases in which models produce disparate outcomes, yielding harsher sentences for members of ethnic or racial minority groups. Levin acknowledged the concern, but argued that “tweaks and adjustments to ensure they don’t have a disparate impact” could solve the challenges of actuarial modeling. The proliferation of data gathering and of local reform efforts have started to acquire a momentum of their own, he argued.

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