Criminal Justice by the Numbers: The Moneyball Approach

“The approach is simple. First, government needs to figure out what works. Second, government should fund what works. Then, it should stop funding what doesn’t work.”

That, in a nutshell, is Peter Orszag’s summary of a recent, detailed set of recommendations  issued by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s law school. He calls it “the Moneyball approach”–going by statistical evidence rather than gut impressions.

The Brennan Center’s proposal, Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration, is a plan to link federal grant money to modern criminal justice goals – to use that grant money more strategically– to promote innovative crime-reduction policies nationwide and to reduce crime, incarceration and the costs of both.

The proposal, titled “Success-Oriented Funding,” would change the federal government’s $352 million Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, by focusing on the government’s current criteria for determining whether a grant has been successful.  (Fortunately, given the gridlock in Congress, It could be implemented by the DOJ– it wouldn’t require legislation.)

The fundamental premise of the program is that “what gets measured gets done.” If you are measuring the number of arrests, you’ll increase arrests. If you are measuring reductions in crime or recidivism, you’ll get reductions in crime and recidivism.

A blue-ribbon panel including prosecutors and defense lawyers, Republicans and Democrats, academics and officeholders has signed on to the proposal. As Orszag noted in the Forward:

Based on rough calculations, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely. With so little performance data, it is impossible to say how many of the programs are effective. The consequences of failing to measure the impact of so many of our government programs — and of sometimes ignoring the data even when we do measure them — go well beyond wasting scarce tax dollars. Every time a young person participates in a program that doesn’t work but could have participated in one that does, that represents a human cost. And failing to do any good is by no means the worst sin possible: Some state and federal dollars flow to programs that actually harm the people who participate in them.

Figuring out what we taxpayers are paying for, and whether what we are paying for works.

Evidence. What a novel idea!


  1. Gathering data on what happens in any program is always threatening. First of all, people know that if the policies are going to be followed as you described, lots of people will find ways to subvert the system, and deliver, at the most, process data (e.g., we did this and that) rather than outcome information. They will do anything to avoid looking bad, because they don’t understand that they could just as well be working in a program that works. That means we need establish systems that protect from the recent Tony Bennett phenomenon in education. We put in place objective people who will gather and analyze data with decent program evaluation methods, and there are many models that work. In the end someone’s ox gets gored along with the inevitable politicization, but by focusing on data, we can produce programs that actually do something more than border on cruel and unusual. Maybe it’s beginning to soak in that 1 out of every 100 citizens are in prisons and that awful situations only contribute to recidivism. Maybe people are beginning to ask whether many of these people even should be in prison. Many countries provide models for everything. Norway is a positive example.

Comments are closed.