Measuring the Social ROI of Justice

Sentencing Commission ROI Calculator“One of the flaws in the operation of our criminal justice system is not only the failure to be attentive to cost but an arrogance that somehow you can never put a price on justice. Long missing has been a sober realization that even if we get significant benefits from incarceration, that comes at a significant cost.”

So says Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at The Ohio State University, in support of a new initiative to take cost into consideration when selecting sentencing alternatives for criminals reported by the NYT.

Whether it's arrogance -- or simply a failure of imagination -- the reality is that measuring the return on investment (ROI) of justice is not much different from evaluating the ROI of any other good or service (in the social sector or otherwise). The State of Missouri has built a computer algorithm around it:

"The concept is simple: fill in an offender’s conviction code, criminal history and other background, and the program spits out a range of recommended sentences, new statistical information about the likelihood that Missouri criminals with similar profiles (and the sentences they received) might commit more crimes, and the various options’ price tags."

This system helps address the two most basic questions of any investment decision: 1) What's the cost?, and 2) What's the (likely) outcome?

Yes, outcomes are sometimes difficult to precisely estimate, or challenging to compare when different units of measure (i.e., apples and oranges) are involved.  And the answers won't always make decisionmaking easy.  But it will often make it easier.  And as long as we inhabit a world of limited resources, calculating ROI (or SROI - social return on investment) will always be the most responsible decisionmaking approach.
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