In setting priorities for funding and support, intervention programs demonstrated to be effective and efficient are preferred over programs that are well intentioned but untested by rigorous evaluation. An evidence-based approach is undeniably better than an approach based on faith or anecdotes, but the findings of existing evaluations are not sufficient by themselves as a basis for effective policy-making. Translating research into practice requires more than a review of existing studies. It requires knowledge of the research process and its limitations.
The scale of incarceration is not simply a reaction to crime. It is a policy choice. Some lawmakers invest heavily in youth confinement facilities. In their jurisdictions, incarceration is a key component of the youth justice system. Other lawmakers invest more in community-based programs. In their view, costly confinement should be reserved for chronic and seriously violent offenders. These choices are critical for budgets and for safety.
In an evaluation of inter-agency initiatives to reform human services systems, outcomes are observed at the system level rather than the individual level. The Reclaiming Futures initiative is designed to improve services and interventions for justice-involved youth.
Despite their popularity, there are many unanswered questions about the effectiveness of teen courts. The overall impression one gets from the evaluation literature is positive, but researchers have yet to identify exactly why teen courts work. Most important, studies have not yet investigated whether some teen court models are better than others.
The concept of realignment, however, is much older than 20 years. The Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice reviewed the state of the art in justice realignment. Researchers compiled the literature on realignment and other related initiatives and used the results to report on the best approaches to practice and policy.
Reducing youth crime is a complicated business, and I think we all know that it takes more than punishment. If it were possible to stop crime simply by adopting policies that sound tough and by advocating more use of secure confinement, we would have succeeded by now. That strategy has been tried enough times for us to know whether it works. Decades of research tell us that it does not work.