10/09/2011 12:57 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2011

Finding the "Fat Catchers" of Criminal Justice

Cook County criminal justice can learn some valuable lessons from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Oakland A's. Namely, experts are often overconfident. They make mistakes because they see the world from a narrow, limited perspective, and they have inadequate, unsystematic information. Their incorrect diagnoses can be tremendously costly. Rather than rely on the personal observations and experience of experts to solve our problems, it may be better to make simple, incremental changes and then observe the results.

In 2002, the NIH abruptly terminated one of the largest medical studies ever conducted. The reason? The treatment provided to tens of thousands of menopausal women, hormone replacement therapy, turned out to increase the patients' risk of heart disease and cancer. This was particularly shocking because, for decades, the treatment had been widely thought to be relatively low risk. Doctors had not detected the complications.

At a recent conference in downtown Chicago, Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago told a group of prosecutors (and a few observers) about the relevance of this to criminal justice policy. According to Ludwig, the initial hormone replacement studies made the treatment seem safe and effective because the women who signed up for the experimental treatment were likely to be health conscious--and, thus, were especially likely to be healthy. As a result, few of those women developed heart disease or cancers. If the women needing treatment had been randomly assigned to varying therapies, including hormone replacement, the risks of the hormones would have been seen. But the selection bias, as it's called, masked the negative effects, and it was subtle enough to escape the experts' notice, yet significant enough to devastate the NIH trial.

Similarly, innovative criminal justice reforms may produce misleading results if they are not implemented using systematic research methods. For example, a three percent decrease in recidivism is too small to be seen by decision makers active in the day-to-day administration of justice, but a change of that size could be detected in a well-designed experiment. And a 3% reduction in recidivism would save taxpayers and the victims of crime millions of dollars. It is something you would want to know about.

Another example illustrates the perils of basing criminal justice policy observational, and not evidence-based, conclusions. Michael Lewis' popular book (and popular film adaptation), Moneyball, uses the "fat catcher" to demonstrate the advantages of statistics over scouts in identifying prospects for major league baseball teams. Though he doesn't look like the traditional pick for a team, the fat catcher's solid batting average and low price tag translate into a reliable net positive contribution. The fat catcher, himself, won't win the pennant, but, with a deep bench and solid leadership, he's a cost-effective complement to the team.

The challenge for the Cook County criminal justice system is similar to that of the Oakland A's. A cash-strapped organization must identify incremental changes that will produce effective and cost-effective outcomes. In other words, we've got to find the "fat catchers" of criminal justice policy. The Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice is currently drafting a report with a host of recommendations aimed at reducing incarceration, recidivism, and costs. It is informed by a number of sources--interviews with staff throughout the criminal justice system, programs in other municipalities, and evidence-based criminal justice research.

The report summarizes some of the best, most successful, and most practical solutions to the vexing problem of costly incarceration and recidivism. Cities all over the country have successfully implemented the same or similar recommendations. A great many of the recommendations--such as creating a centralized database and sharing data within the county--have bounced around Cook County for years, if not decades, but disjointed administration and funding make coordinated action seem daunting. It is easier to continue the status quo.

Cook County criminal justice agencies use a dozen different software systems that mostly do not interface with one another. Although the County's budget and facilities are inadequate, there are tremendous resources at its doorstep. The University of Chicago's crime lab, Directed by Dr. Ludwig, provides pro bono assistance--and federal funding connections--to municipalities seeking to implement evidence-based reforms.

Cook County is well-positioned to adopt smart, proven criminal justice policies. Innovative public safety leaders like Cook County Board President Preckwinkle, Chicago Police Superintendent McCarthy, Mayor Emmanuel and Sheriff Dart are already adopting policies designed to reduce costs, crime, and imprisonment. A shift of resources from the costly incarceration of low level offenders to more effective drug treatment programs could both reduce drug-related crime and aid impoverished families.

There are no home runs in criminal justice policy, just solid hits and catches--in other words, incremental, fact-based, verifiable reforms.

Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice