How Well Does the Justice System Track the Incarcerated?

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Tracking the sheer number of incarcerated individuals is not enough to create a more fair, equitable criminal justice system, according to one expert.

While the national attitude about crime and punishment has shifted, and the public is now calling for more aggressive reforms to criminal penalties, the way data is collected in jails and prisons needs to change, argues Adam Gelb, the Director of the Public Safety Performance Project at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Gelb, in a report produced for the Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, found that two new, nuanced ways to collect data were needed.

He suggests collecting the following information:

  1. Correctional Population Composition: This measure would track the profile, or composition, of the prison and supervision populations. It would shed light on the critical question of what percentage of these population consist of those who pose a threat to public safety, and how many are people who could safely pay their debt to society in less expensive and more effective ways.
  2.  Recidivism by Risk: A second metric would adjust recidivism rates to account for the changing composition of persons under correctional control. It would help gauge how well corrections agencies are succeeding with individuals across the risk spectrum, and guard against perceptions of failure if recidivism rates rise due to the higher-risk composition of caseloads rather than sagging performance.

If progress towards a better, more equitable justice system is to be achieved, we need to know more than “the raw number of people in prison,” Gelb said.

That gauge, in turn, will help illuminate whether institutional and community corrections agencies are succeeding in reducing the likelihood they will come back again, he concluded.

A full copy of the paper can be found here.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. 

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