Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice

New Tools For a Data-Driven Criminal Justice System

The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice conducts research projects to improve outcomes of our nation’s criminal justice system. The Institute is led by University of Minnesota Law School sentencing scholars Kevin Reitz and Richard Frase, along with Executive Director Kelly Lyn Mitchell. When the Institute created the Parole Release and Revocation Project and Probation Revocation Project, they brought a group of experts together to research sentencing policies in different jurisdictions.

In this Trump era, some leaders want tough-on-crime policies rather than smart-on-crime policies. For example, many reports indicate that Attorney General Jeff Sessions contemplates policy changes that will lead to harsher punishments for low-level offenders. Such policy changes would translate into higher levels of incarceration and post-release supervision. But will those changes lead to safer communities? The Robina Institute’s research offers insight that all stakeholders can use, and every American is a stakeholder in our criminal justice system.

For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of participating as an “advisory council member” with one of the Robina Institute projects. Dr. Edward Rhine, former Deputy Director of the Office of Offender Reentry with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, leads the Parole Release and Revocation project. I’ve also had the privilege of listening and learning from experts with the Probation Revocation project, led by Dr. Ronald P. Corbett, Jr., former acting commissioner of the Massachusetts Probation Department.

Other Advisory Council members include representatives from the Association of Paroling Authorities International, the U.S. Parole Commission, parole boards, the National Parole Resource Center, the academic community, and the judiciary. I’m the only person in the group that served multiple decades in prison and several years under post-release supervision. Members of the group allowed me to listen and learn, but they also encouraged me to share perspectives as a person who has gone through all phases of the criminal justice system.

Attending the meetings has given me a new appreciation for the tough job of sentencing and corrections. Those who have real-world experience overseeing release mechanisms that influence the lives of thousands of offenders have an enormous responsibility. Decisions they make influence budgets and community safety. Sometimes, their decisions can have career implications. How does such a policy influence their decisions?

Solid research provides policy makers with data that can prove valuable to decision making for legislators, administrators, and practitioners. Rather than making politically expedient decisions that lead to mass incarceration, data shows that leaders should rely upon both quantitative and qualitative research to get the outcomes we want from our criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system isn’t a single entity. All 50 states have their own system. The military has a criminal justice system. And the United States has a federal system. By my count, that means the United States operates at least 53 different criminal justice systems. Besides those systems, there are also county jurisdictions that manage probation, community supervision, county jails, and supervised release. They don’t all operate in the same way. Each system has its own sentencing policies, its own release mechanisms, and its own procedures for leadership. Those leaders provide oversight for agencies that employ thousands of people. Those staff members are charged with the responsibility of corrections and supervision that influence the lives of millions of people.

We all benefit when researchers assess and contemplate the effectiveness of different systems.

With its team of scholars, the Robina Institute has examined how practitioners make decisions in jurisdictions across the country. They have researched the release mechanisms in place, qualifications for people that make decisions, and principles that practitioners rely upon. Their decisions influence outcomes of our criminal justice system and community safety. By conducting research on the various policies and practices in different jurisdictions across the United States, Robina Institute researchers have compiled an enormous amount of data. The Institute’s team has published that data into a series of useful and actionable reports that anyone can access through the Robina Institute’s website.

The Robina Institute’s publications contribute to justice reinvestment initiatives. A data-driven approach leads to evidence-based decisions rather than expedient, politically driven decisions. Legislators, policy makers, and administrators may consult research conducted by the Robina team when assessing the return on investment for billions of dollars in criminal justice budgets. The research offers clear data that decision makers may use to assess sentencing, corrections, and post-release supervision.

As a formerly incarcerated individual, I strive to share what I’ve learned from the scholars and leaders at the Robina Institute with different audiences. By providing more insight into how our criminal justice system operates, citizens can assess whether policy changes that will expand our prison and post-release supervision populations make sense. Although Attorney General Jeff Sessions argues that prosecutors should pursue charges with harsher sentences for all offenders, objective research provides scientific evidence that shows we should use validated risk-assessment tools and data to assess effectiveness of all decisions.

Through PrisonProfessor.com I provide this insight for attorneys, defendants, and offenders who must prepare for sentencing. They can find value in the Robina reports, too. By understanding what policy makers expect, people can position themselves in ways to have the most successful journey through prison and beyond. The sooner defendants begin preparing for success upon release, the more likely they are to influence a positive outcome.

Reports like Robina’s American Exceptionalism in Parole Supervision show that we not only incarcerate more people per capita than any other country, we also keep people on supervised release longer than any nation. And jurisdictions across the country rely upon different principles with regard to post-release supervision. Since data shows that revocation of probation or parole makes an enormous contribution to mass incarceration, research by the Robina Institute team offers an enormously valuable contribution.

Consult the Robina website to learn more about best practices in criminal justice, the value of evidence-based decisions, and the importance of risk-assessment instruments.

Disclaimer: In the case of all blog posts, podcasts, or video blogs, the opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Law School, or the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.​

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