Analytics and Criminal Justice Systems


Chapter 2 provides a discussion of analytics, especially those methodologies involving multiple objective analyses, as it relates to criminal justice systems.

The second section of the chapter describes the various decisions relating to the design and operation of criminal justice systems. A major part of this section is a discussion of the complexities of criminal justice systems which make these decisions difficult.

The third section of the chapter discusses five categories of methodologies for dealing with criminal justice systems: (1) problem structuring methods; (2) methods for generating the multiple objectives and performance measures for a decision problem; (3) cost-benefit analyses; (4) multiattribute value functions and multiattribute utility functions, which allow one to trade-off among multiple performance measures; and (5) simulation modeling and analysis. Illustrative examples of problem structuring for juvenile crime and the determination of performance measures for the design of a syringe exchange program are given.

Finally, the fourth section of the chapter provides a brief overview of applications of analytics (or operations research), as described in the literature, to criminal justice systems.

Decisions Associated with Criminal Justice Systems and Why They Are Difficult to Make

Decisions in General

Making and implementing good decisions is how a system is improved. A decision can be defined as the selection of a single alternative from among two or more alternatives. A good decision is defined as one which has a deliberative process, is evidence-based, balances the interests of those involved, and is made by the proper authority.

An example of a decision situation with only two alternatives is the situation where a state legislature can either pass a specific law or not pass that law.

An example of a decision situation involving many alternatives would be the situation where a law could have any of several different parameter settings. The First Step Act, which was signed into law in December of 2018 (Criminal Justice Reform, n.d.) is discussed in Chapter 4; this law allocated $37 million for drug treatment programs for prisoners during 2021. The funding of $37 million is a somewhat arbitrary amount—the amount could have been, and given the need, probably should have been, much larger. This amount of funding for drug treatment as part of the First Step Act is just one of many different parameter values for the law, and thus represents a decision that was made from among many different alternative levels of funding.

Decisions are often connected to other decisions, in many cases through their sequencing. Referring to the First Step Act again, decisions were made as to various provisions to be included in the act, the amount of funding to be attached to these provisions, and, finally, as to whether the act was passed by the Congress and signed into law by the President.

Decision Makers and Stakeholders for Criminal Justice Systems

A decision maker is someone (or an organization) who has responsibility for making decisions. Such responsibility will usually involve making trade-offs among the various conflicting objectives as part of the decision-making process. For example, for a decision about a new state law, the decision maker would be the state legislature and governor. A judge would be the decision maker in many of the decisions made in a criminal trial. Police are decision makers when an arrest is made or not made.

The stakeholders for a criminal justice system are basically those who have a stake in the system’s operation. It is important to know who these people are in order to establish performance measures for the system—basically the performance measures will be derived from the values of the stakeholders. To evaluate various alternatives with respect to the design and operation of a criminal justice system, we need to compare the values for the performance measures between the different alternatives.

The stakeholders for a criminal justice system are basically those with a stake in the relevant decision situation. These include, over all decisions for criminal justice systems, virtually all adults (and even some children and teenagers) since the systems are supported by taxpayers. But in order to be more specific the list of stakeholders would include police, police unions, victims, defendants, families of the defendants, the convicted, families of the convicted, judges, jurors, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, state legislators, congressional representatives, judicial staff, prison and jail staff, prison unions, and taxpayers, among others.

For any decision situation, it is important to know who these stakeholders are in order to establish performance measures, as derived from the values of the stakeholders. To evaluate various alternatives with respect to a decision situation for a criminal justice system, we need to compare the values for the objectives and corresponding performance measures between the different alternatives.

For example, consider a decision situation where a judge decides about pretrial conditions (e.g., remand or release on bail) for a defendant. The primary stakeholders would include the defendant as well as the defendant’s family, the victim(s) of the crime, and the public in general, among others. The objectives for this decision could include: optimize public safety, maximize days of freedom for the defendant until a verdict is given in the case (remember that the defendant may be innocent), minimize incarceration costs to the government, minimize risk to the victim of the crime, and so on. Associated with these objectives would be the uncertainty related to the guilt/innocence of the accused and with the behavior of the accused prior to trial. Decisions which would be good for one stakeholder might not be good for another, and therefore appropriate methods must be employed to consider the trade-offs between the objectives.

The stakeholders listed in the previous paragraph can be grouped into two categories which we will call the government and the defendant. The government, often termed “the people” in a criminal trial, consists of all the stakeholders listed in the previous paragraph except for defendants and their families. The stakeholder which we call defendant consists of the defendant and their family.

Decisions for Criminal Justice Systems

As with almost all complex systems, such as those associated with supply chains, health care, and manufacturing, decisions pertaining to the design and operation of criminal justice systems in the United States can be categorized along at least two dimensions: locality affected and time frame. Locality affected can be, from smallest to largest: local, state, and national. Time frame can be, from shortest to longest: tactical (up to a few days), operational (from a few days to a few months), and strategic (from a few months to several years). (The time durations given are somewhat flexible in nature.) Decisions made on the national/ state level can place constraints on the decisions made on the local/case level. In a similar fashion, decisions made on a strategic time frame can place constraints on decisions made at the operational/tactical time frame. Hence, strategic decisions made on the national level represent the most important decisions for criminal justice.

At the tactical level, a document published by the National Institute of Corrections enumerates several key decision points in the criminal justice system (page 23, A Framework for Evidence-Based Decision Making in State and Local Criminal Justice Systems, 2017). Some of these are given as follows, along with the alternatives in parentheses:

  • 7) Arrest decisions (cite, detain, divert, treat, release).
  • 2) Pretrial status decisions (release on recognizance, release on unsecured or secured bond, release with supervision conditions, detain, respond to noncompliance, reassess supervision conditions).
  • 3) Diversion and deferred prosecution decisions.
  • 4) Charging decisions (charge, dismiss).
  • 5) Plea decisions (plea terms).
  • 6) Sentencing decisions (sentence type, length, terms and conditions).
  • 7) Local and state institutional intervention decisions (security level, housing placement, behavior change interventions).

An example of a tool used in the arrest decision in point 1 above is the Police Diversion Screening Tool developed by the Criminal Justice Lab at NYU Law (Criminal Justice Lab, NYU Law, n.d.). The tool, developed in conjunction with the Indianapolis Metro Police Department, allows for police in the field to divert individuals with mental health or substance abuse issues away from the criminal justice system and directly into an appropriate mental health facility. In addition to reducing congestion in local jails, the tool allows for appropriate treatment for those who need it, thereby possibly reducing recidivism.

Some of these decisions must be made within a noticeably short time frame, such as an arrest decision. Even in this case though, the almost instantaneous availability of information about the potential arrestee and the availability of fast evaluation algorithms make the decision easier.

In the case of decisions associated with federal laws, some of these laws are passed to repeal or amend old laws, and some are completely new. The number of federal laws in existence is almost impossible to know for sure, but an exhaustive study done in the 1980s counted approximately 3,000 different criminal offenses (Cali, 2013).

In addition to the types of decisions peculiar to criminal justice systems, there are the decisions associated with most large-scale systems, including those related to funding levels, locations, allocations, capacities, staffing, scheduling, routing, privatization, etc. Specifically, we are referring to questions like:

  • • Where should a new prison be located and what should be its capacity?
  • • Should a prison be privatized (e.g., operated by a private company rather than the state government)?
  • • Should the budget for a police department be increased by 20%, reduced by 20%, or eliminated altogether?
  • • Should an increased level of policing be done for a particular area of the city?

In a more general sense, the potential decisions associated with criminal justice systems might be categorized as follows: (1) modification, elimination, or institution of new state or federal laws/statutes or regulations; (2) modification, elimination, or institution of new policies/procedures; and (3) the addition or deletion of resources (law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, probation officers, prison/jai 1 staff, etc.) or facilities.

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