A call for an evidence-based criminal justice system

The Government announced this week that it plans to recruit mentors to help people leaving prison make a successful transition to be law-abiding citizens. The scheme is aimed at those who have spent less than a year in jail who currently do not receive any substantive support. The mentors will be ex-prisoners who have not reoffended and understand the challenges faced. The Government thinks this scheme could be provided by social enterprises and that making payments dependent on results achieved – the extent to which recidivism is reduced – will result in better outcomes and value for money for the taxpayer.

This sounds like a good idea but the scheme should be properly and rigorously evaluated. This would enable realistic targets to be set for the performance of the scheme. The most rigorous way to do this would be a randomised trial.

But do I hear you say this would be unethical because it would mean withholding the promising mentoring system from half the potential reoffenders? The answer is no –Radio 4’s Today Programme made it clear that there aren’t enough mentors to go around.

The RCT therefore is not only a scientific tool but also a method to allocate resources in a fair, egalitarian way. The RCT, in other words, would kill two birds with one stone.

The Cabinet Office has recently issued a discussion document entitled Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials advocating evidence-based public policy and use of randomised trials to evaluate government policies and programmes. While there is some evidence that mentoring can reduce re-offending, this tends to be based on studies with young people, or in some cases young people at risk of offending rather the general prison population. There are some excellent examples of undertaking randomised control trials on using mentors for new mothers and coping with serious illnesses. Here’s a case where the Government could live up to the high scientific standards it has set for itself.






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