Balanced Justice: New study seeks to make dollars and sense out of criminal justice policy

Criminals aren't terribly skilled at performing a cost-benefit analysis before embarking on their disastrous ventures, which they usually end up describing as "bad choices, Your Honor." That's all the more reason judges, lawmakers, prison officials and others in the justice system ought to think more like economists, according to a new report.

"Balanced Justice," released by the New York University School of Law's Institute for Policy Integrity, makes the case that the increasing use of cost-benefit methodology in studying parole programs and sentencing alternatives is saving the system millions of dollars nationwide -- and could save much more.

"In many cases, credible research shows that the administrative costs of implementing a new program can be dwarfed by future benefits," writes author Jennifer Rosenberg. "These benefits spring from not only reductions in crime and avoided sentencing costs, but also increased lifetime earnings and health outcomes."

The "evidence-based" approach to dealing with crime, in which recidivism rates and operational costs are factored into lawmakers' decisions about what programs truly work, has become the rage in many areas of the system, from drug courts to juvenile boot camps and other alternatives to endless cycles of prison construction. But that doesn't mean politics, emotion and an old-fashioned lust for vengeance have been taken out of the equation. For a glimpse of how politics, money and lobbying shapes the criminal justice landscape in Colorado, see this week's feature, "The Victim Lobby."

Rosenberg contends that a more rational approach to crime is possible without sacrificing publice safety: "Debates over criminal justice reform have tended to be one-sided, dominated by prosecutors, law enforcement, private prison companies, and corrections officer unions... Whereas headlines publicizing crime once helped drive a shift toward harsher policies and increased penalties, today's headlines on the economic crisis ought to motivate some rethinking of how criminal justice policy is made."

Click here to check out the entire Balanced Justice report.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Prison rape: New resource center focuses on improving prosecution, prevention."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast