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Crunching the numbers on criminal justice

ASK THIS | October 19, 2011

A new report finds that subjecting criminal justice policy proposals to cost-benefit analysis would show that many "get tough" policies take an outsized toll on taxpayers and society.

Decisions about criminal justice policy have historically been driven largely by politics, ideology and fear rather than research and hard data. The political toxicity of the “soft on crime” label in particular has created nearly unremitting upward pressure in the harshness of measures including three strikes laws, mandatory minimums, and longer sentences. 

But the result has been an era of mass incarceration, with disastrous effects on some communities -- and at enormous cost to the taxpayer. 
So the question arises: In an economic downturn, when state funding is scarce and legislatures are on the lookout for even the smallest of budget cuts, could smarter criminal justice decisions bring better results with a smaller price tag? 
A new report out today from NYU's Institute for Policy Integrity encourages policymakers to apply an economic analysis to criminal justice policy.  And such an analysis, the report says, would reach this conclusion: "Public safety can be prioritized and even improved at a lower cost than traditional incarceration, using techniques like behavioral therapy for young offenders, intensive supervision, or a new iteration of a drug court. "
The Nieman Watchdog Project asked the Institute for Policy Integrity what questions reporters should be asking policymakers about criminal justice decisions going forward. Their suggestions:
Q. Has an independent appraisal of costs to taxpayers been conducted?
Q. If so, have all of the direct and indirect benefits -- to victims, to offenders, to offenders' families, and to society writ large -- been considered?
The policy that results in lower recidivism rates will often be the one with the greatest benefit to society. Reporters should ask:
Q. Which policy will reduce recidivism rates most?
Q. Have the all the benefits of having fewer repeat offenders been considered?
These benefits will include the cost-savings of having fewer people victimized, fewer prosecutions, fewer inmates. But there's also the benefits of increased lifetime earnings and improved quality of life for victims, offenders, and offenders' families.

Posted by Calbengoshi
10/26/2011, 09:22 PM

Before asking a politician any of Dan Froomkin's questions, a journalist should ask that politician whether he/she believes that government should use a cost-benefit analysis before adopting environmental regulations (or regulations relating to the financial sector or some other sector of business). If the answer is yes, then that politician should be asked why he/she doesn't believe that government should use a similar cost-benefit analysis when dealing with matters of criminal law.

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