Policy Analysis

It might be useful to first distinguish between programs, policies, and projects. Welsh and Harris (2013) define a policy as “a rule or set of rules or guidelines for how to make a decision” (p. 4). Policies may or may not lead to the development of programs and projects. A department of corrections, for example, can establish a policy that no inmate is to ever leave custody straight from isolation. With that announcement would come the need for the department to establish a new step-down program that would integrate people from isolation back into a more congregate setting within the prison for several months before they complete their sentences. A program is “a set of services aimed at achieving specific goals and objectives within specified individuals, groups, organizations, or communities” (Welsh & Harris, 2013, p. 5). So, the step-down program would work toward fulfilling the policy objective of acclimating inmates to social settings prior to release. Projects are smaller than programs and include a “time-limited set of services provided to particular individuals, groups, organizations, communities, usually focused on a single need, problem, or issue” (Welsh & Harris, 2013, p. 5). A project within the larger step-down program might be offering 12 weekly one-hour anger management sessions to a group of 15 inmates.

In criminal justice, we are constantly working to develop new policies or modify existing ones. Ideally, these changes should be a product of careful consideration of the facts, with an eye on the impact that the proposed change might have on all constituents. We do this by trying to look into the future and predict possible outcomes. Patton and Sawicki (1993) noted that this type of work goes by many names, including ex ante, pre hoc, anticipatory, or prospective policy analysis (Patton & Sawicki, 1993).

Bardach and Patashnik (2020) identified eight steps to conduct policy analysis:

  • 1. Verify and define the problem
  • 2. Assemble evidence
  • 3. Construct alternatives
  • 4. Select criteria
  • 5. Project outcomes
  • 6. Confront trade-offs
  • 7. Decide
  • 8. Present the plan

The elements of policy analysis listed here make up a good formula for making a rational, evidence-based decision. Once analysts identify the problem and assemble evidence of a current or anticipated future problem, the next step is to consider our options. One possibility could be just staying the course and not changing the current trajectory'. That can be used as a type of yardstick against which we can compare other ideas. After we identify alternatives, we need to list criteria that we will use to compare the viability of our options. Here, we might want to consider potential effectiveness of addressing the problem, financial cost, political feasibility, ethical considerations, and administrative robustness of the plan. For ethical considerations, one thing that we must consider is how the proposed policy might differentially impact certain populations. Administrative robustness refers to how resilient the proposed policy would be when faced with poor implementation (Bardach & Patashnik, 2020). Next, we try to project the outcomes to predict how each of our policy alternatives might play out in the future. A good historical example of our failure to carefully consider the future impact of our decisions is the war on drugs policies of the 1980s and 1990s. These laws had disproportionately negative impacts on minority communities and pushed criminal justice expenditures to the point that counties, states, and the federal government could no longer afford to keep incarcerating people. When those laws were passed, there was little thought about what the social or fiscal impacts would be. This is why some state governments now require fiscal or minority impact statements to accompany any punitive change to sentencing practices (Subramanian, Moreno, & Broomhead, 2014). Once we have those projections, we can compare our assembled evidence, consider how our policy alternatives rank on our selected evaluation criteria, select one, and then try to state our case to promote the proposed policy.

An unfortunate fact of life in criminal justice is that we do not always take this careful, logical approach to decision-making. Welsh and Harris (2013) discuss planned and unplanned change. Planned change is done more carefully and is likely to follow the aforementioned steps. Unplanned change occurs much more hastily and often without consideration of some important facts. Unplanned change and even ill-conceived planned change occur in criminal justice more often than they should. The reason for this goes back to something I mentioned in Chapter 1, and that is the belief among many that crime control is a “common sense” issue, so it is not necessary' to

System Model

Figure 12.1 System Model

Source: Lineberry, R. L. (1977). American Public Policy. New York, NY: Harper Rowe. p. 43

consider research results or experts in the field when we make decisions. In criminal justice, there are numerous stakeholders, including criminal justice professionals, offenders, labor unions, politicians, special-interest groups, corporations, and voters who have an interest in criminal justice policy. The result is that sometimes politicians will advocate approaches that have been found not to work but would still appeal to certain groups of constituents. Corporations, lobbyists, and even labor unions may push for policies that might not be effective but will provide job security and profits for the people they represent. The unfortunate result is that we often see policy analysis that does not conform to the appropriate steps, or it is done properly but is then ignored by decision-makers.

Regardless of how well we adhere to the steps of policy formulation, we introduce new or modified criminal justice policies at the national, state, county, local, agency, and department levels all the time. Lineberry' (1977), in his classic text on American public policy, presented the system model, displayed in Figure 12.1. This model explains the policy implementation process.

The policy process begins with individuals or groups demanding action. The response to that demand results in some type of input, which could include money, personnel, or other resources that are to be used to address the demand. Next, we have activities, and those consist of whatever is done with the inputs. As a result of those activities, the new policy or program generates outputs. The outputs lead to some sort of outcome or impact, hopefully a desirable one that addresses the original demand. As an example, we can consider the bail reform efforts that are taking place throughout the country. The demand for these programs came from prisoners’ advocacy and racial justice groups concerned about the racial disparities that exist in our pretrial detention practices, especially since pretrial detention has been found to be associated with worse sentencing outcomes. Even groups such as fiscal conservatives, who historically have been less concerned about prisoners’ rights, became amenable to change due to the financial impact of mass incarceration on county and state budgets. That demand for change produced bail reform policies in some states and counties, with pretrial detention decisions being made based on risk assessment models that heavily weigh the seriousness of the current charge. The inputs for this new policy include resources to make the risk assessment model and personnel to staff the pretrial services offices in the court and probation departments. Outputs include reduced jail populations and increased numbers of people released on recognizance or with pretrial supervision conditions. The outcome of bail reform is how much this is impacting the area’s crime rates, the percentage of pretrial individuals who are failing to appear for court after release from jail, and the percentage of inmates subject to pretrial release who commit additional crimes while awaiting trial.

There are several different types of desirable impacts and outcomes in criminal justice that we might want to measure. Some of the most obvious ones are numbers of crimes, crime rates, and

System Model Applied to Bail Reform

Figure 12.2 System Model Applied to Bail Reform

recidivism statistics. Following the recession of 2008, cost saving became an especially important outcome as governments were seeking ways to manage offenders with cheaper alternatives to incarceration. For juveniles, we might be interested in school attendance, suspensions, and graduation rates as outcomes.

Once we know about the impacts, we should provide feedback to influence what Lineberry (1977) calls tomorrow’s inputs. Feedback is vital as it allows us to consider keeping, modifying, or shutting down the new policy or program, depending on its effectiveness. In New Jersey, police and prosecutor feedback following the initial months of bail reform implementation was used to modify the pretrial release procedure to make it easier to detain people charged with gun crimes, eluding the police, assault on a police officer, or crimes related to child pornography (Office of the Attorney General, 2017). Once state officials were able to see the program in practice, they were dissatisfied with some of the types of offenders who were being released, and that feedback prompted changes. The next section will address how we evaluate programs to generate that feedback.

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