Data-Driven Policy

During my time at Penn State Harrisburg, I had the opportunity to assist staff members on several research projects while I worked as a research and graduate assistant.  I had also written a thesis as part of the Master’s program requirements.  After these experiences, I was convinced that analyzing criminological data and researching justice issues was what I was truly passionate about.

When I graduated from Penn State Harrisburg, the Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission and other juvenile justice stakeholders from around the Commonwealth were embarking on a system-wide enhancement strategy.  This strategy, known as the Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy (JJSES), was created to employ evidence-based practices at every stage of the juvenile justice process, collect and analyze the data necessary to measure the results of these efforts and based on these analyses, make informed decisions regarding services and programs for delinquent youth. This comprehensive strategy rests on two interwoven foundations: the best empirical research available in the field of juvenile justice and a set of core beliefs about how to put this research into practice.  After the JJSES was officially endorsed in November 2010, committed stakeholders throughout the state got to work deciding the best ways to make the strategy happen in Pennsylvania.

Since components of the JJSES were not implemented until 2010, examining recidivism rates two years beyond the closure of 2007 cases would provide an appropriate measure of outcomes before the strategy began.  Recidivism was defined as: a subsequent delinquency adjudication (which is similar to conviction in criminal court, but occurs in juvenile court) or conviction in criminal court for either a misdemeanor or felony offense (within two years of case closure). For example, if Sam was arrested for shoplifting, was subsequently placed on probation with a juvenile probation department, and then shoplifted again after his probation ended, he would have recidivated.

At this time, JCJC realized that while they had the data necessary to calculate the benchmark, they lacked a staff person to be fully dedicated to completing such a large project.  The Stoneleigh Foundation offered JCJC an opportunity to hire an Emerging Leader Fellow and I began my fellowship on July 1, 2011.    

It was determined that we would use the Pennsylvania Juvenile Case Management System (PaJCMS) to identify which juveniles had their cases closed in 2007.  Next, we were going to send this list to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, an entity that maintains criminal (adult) court records, in order to determine how many of those juveniles re-offended as an adult within two years of their 2007 case closure.  Simultaneously, staff members from the Center for Juvenile Justice Training and Research (CJJT&R), a subdivision of JCJC, were going to query PaJCMS again to identify how many juveniles from the original list re-offended in juvenile court within two years of their 2007 case closure.  All of this data would be combined into one document to calculate the overall recidivism rates for each of Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties, and ultimately, produce a statewide average.  By May 2012, we had calculated the baseline recidivism rates for each county and the statewide average. . 

In addition to establishing the recidivism benchmark, JCJC decided that it would also be important to analyze the differences between recidivists and non-recidivists in terms of demographics and other key variables (e.g., program type, placement type, provider, length of time in placement, length of involvement with the juvenile justice system, etc.).  Not only would this help to illustrate what worked for whom, it would also help to frame the causal factors of recidivism in Pennsylvania.  As such, one of my first tasks was to scour the scholarly literature and reports from other states that did similar work to identify key areas that should be examined.  Based on this research and the availability of data in PaJCMS, I created a list of approximately 30 variables that we are going to examine for each juvenile case that closed in 2007.   Some of the questions that will be answered by examining these variables include: Are non-white juveniles more likely to recidivate than white juveniles?  Are there certain geographic areas in Pennsylvania that have disproportionately high recidivism rates?  Do certain placement/treatment facilities have above average recidivism rates?  What proportion of the recidivist population is classifiable as serious, chronic, and/or violent offenders? 

Eventually, all of this information will be given to counties so that they can have a better understanding of the recidivism issue in their jurisdiction and can make data-driven decisions for their delinquent population.  In a time when services are tight and budgets are tighter, it is very important for counties to be able to make informed, data-driven decisions about the effective use of resources. More importantly, this research project will help improve the outcome and future of thousands of delinquent youth in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system is built around the balanced and restorative justice (BARJ) model: to protect the community, to restore victims harmed by juvenile crimes, and to help juveniles become responsible and productive members of their community.  Without knowing what works, we cannot effectively help our youth, and we may end up doing harm.  I am convinced; however, that with the efforts of the JJSES and the results of this project, Pennsylvania is in a prime position to best serve our children.

To read more about Justine's work, please click here.

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