Making Better Decisions in the Justice System

Making Better Decisions in the Justice System

May 27, 2015 | Erin Manske, Researcher


Bipartisan agreement on the need for criminal justice reform in the United States has been big news lately, garnering the attention of millions including singer John Legend, who recently announced his own reform venture, #FreeAmerica.

Bipartisan agreement on the need for justice reform in the United States has been big news lately, garnering the attention of millions including singer John Legend, who recently announced his own reform venture, #FreeAmerica.

According to Time, “the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any developed nation, with about 2.2 million people behind bars—a figure that has leaped 500% over the past three decades. It jails 25% of the world’s prisoners, 60% of whom are [people of color]. The 1 in 3 Americans with a criminal record struggle to reintegrate into society because of employment, housing, and voting restrictions that boost recidivism rates.”

At NCCD, we know firsthand that justice system reform is necessary. We also know that it can be a slow process, and as with anything new, can run into uncertainty and pushback. So how can we get momentum going?

Let’s start with what we know.

NCCD has been leading system improvement efforts in juvenile justice by helping our clients answer their questions with the data they already have. The Structured Decision Making® (SDM) model for juvenile justice is an data-driven and research-based system that focuses on key decision points in the life of a juvenile justice case. For each decision point, the SDM® model provides structured assessments that are valid, reliable, equitable, and useful to help make those important decisions. The decision points and corresponding structured assessments are outlined below:

First decision point: Intake and detention

Detention screening instruments identify the likelihood of a young person being arrested or absconding during a specific and short period of time: before the adjudication hearing. This information helps determine whether a youth is able to safely stay at home or in the community, rather than in a detention facility, while awaiting the next hearing. 

Second decision point: Post-adjudication, pre-disposition

Following adjudication, youth may experience an array of dispositions from diversion or community services to commitment to an out-of-home placement. Disposition options can differ depending on the youth’s offense, risk level, agency policies, and other factors. Structuring the decision-making process around disposition helps ensure a consistent and appropriate use of diversion and that youth receive the most appropriate level of intervention, if an intervention is necessary.

NCCD works with agencies to build custom actuarial risk assessments to help make decisions about juvenile cases following adjudication. These assessments help agencies know where to allocate resources and target interventions, and help determine which youth can be safely diverted from the juvenile justice system.  

Another tool is also used at this point: the disposition matrix. This tool ensures that youth in similar situations will have similar and appropriate decisions at their case disposition. It is used in conjunction with a valid risk assessment to promote consistency and equity in recommendations according to the severity of the current offense and risk of future offending.

Third decision point: Post-disposition and case management

Once a disposition decision has been made, juvenile probation agencies can structure decisions around case management to best support each youth. Using research-informed tools allows an agency to routinely evaluate the youth’s progress, provide updated service planning recommendations based on the most current information on a youth, and potentially lessen a youth’s time on supervision, reduce future juvenile justice system involvement, and support community safety.

  • Once a youth receives a disposition of probation, a response matrix or incentives and sanctions structure can guide probation officers and service plans. By including incentives along with sanctions, youth can be rewarded for making progress in their probation while being held accountable for their behavior.
  • Needs assessments can be used for youth in the community or in a facility. By informing caseworkers of individual youths’ needs, an agency can target case plans to meet the needs of each youth. Meeting these needs can help improve youth outcomes.
  • Custody and housing assessments help staff decide how to group youth to ensure the protection and positive development of all youth in out-of-home placements. These assessments also help to alert staff to any special needs youth may have.

So What Does This Mean for Justice Reform?

It’s simple: these three decision points can be easily transposed to the decision points in the life of a case in the adult justice system.

Developing an SDM model in adult justice would help to structure decision points for people in the adult system, while emphasizing community-based alternatives to incarceration, and of those incarcerated, who can be placed in less secure settings while maintaining public safety.

The SDM model goes beyond the numbers to join data with policy and best practices. NCCD collaborates with agency decision makers, caseworkers, probation officers, courts, families, law enforcement agencies, schools, and community-based organizations, helping them to improve long-term outcomes including youth and family well-being and community safety.

We know this model works in juvenile justice, and that the juvenile and adult systems have three main critical decision points with parallel trajectories. Now, more than ever, there is overwhelming evidence and support for justice reform. For more information on using the SDM model in adult justice, contact us.