National Institute of Justice
Justice-Involved Young Adults Research Planning Meeting
From a round table discussion about research needs related to justice-involved young adults. Statement by Jeffrey Butts as reported in the meeting minutes and published by NIJ.
Area 4. Evaluation
Researcher: Jeffrey A. Butts, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Dr. Jeffrey Butts said that evaluation should play a large role in policy and practice. Human development is not finished at some “magic birthday.” Prosecutors and judges need to know that extending the developmental frame beyond age 18 will not endanger them politically and public safety will not be harmed.
The demand for evidence has been increasingly critical when seeking funding for innovative approaches, but lately there has been some pushback. Evaluation evidence is not carefully balanced. Researchers tend to follow the principle of convenience. For instance, people like to do research on issues that can quickly result in publications and recognition. Because of this, there is a great deal of research on detained or incarcerated populations, as they’re easy to access and interview. This means the broader population of young adults at risk of incarceration is not being studied as closely. People also favor research on interventions at the individual level rather than the community level because it is easier and cheaper to get the data, and this lends support to the perspective that crime is solely a function of individual culpability rather than combinations of individual, group, and community factors. The field doesn’t have many evidence-based programs that intervene at the community level because it’s hard to do RCTs (randomized controlled trials). Not enough is being done in this area.
It’s also more convenient to use single-sector data, such as justice system only or schools only. However, this measures only one system’s contribution to a solution, and no single system is wholly responsible for ensuring positive social outcomes. In addition, how do we define “the justice system”? Too many programs define it as incarceration. There are not enough evidence-based prevention programs for young people not headed for incarceration. And in the case of primary or even secondary prevention programs, it’s hard to generate evidence of long-term connection to justice involvement and public safety.
If we were to look earlier in the process at the front door of the system, the risk of long-term justice involvement would be lower, but that is where we should want to intervene because there are big cost-benefit gains to be had. We just have to intervene without escalating risk and harm. We need to build intervention in concert with child welfare, education, job supports, and other systems surrounding the justice system. The field needs to think about developmental context and prevention issues and not just retreat to researching whatever is most convenient.