In recent years, state and local budgets have become increasingly strained, forcing policymakers to make tough funding decisions about programs. Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is an analytical tool policymakers can use to inform budget planning and compare investment options. A significant advantage of CBA is that both costs and benefits are expressed in monetary terms, so they can be directly compared. Many state and local policymakers are working to create and sustain capacity to conduct cost-benefit studies and make effective use of CBA results in program assessment and budgeting. The national Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank for Criminal Justice (CBKB) is one resource jurisdictions can use to help them understand how to use CBA to effectively manage resources and think critically about budget planning. CBKB, a project of the Vera Institute of Justice, is funded through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). Vera is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice policy and practice that conducts projects and reform initiatives, typically in partnership with local, state, or federal agencies, throughout the United States and beyond. Vera combines expertise in research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance (TA) to help leaders in government and civil society improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety. Building CBA Capacity in Criminal Justice In 2010, BJA provided funding for Vera to develop CBKB to help criminal justice practitioners and policymakers better understand the budgetary impact of justice policy choices. BJA established three strategic goals for CBKB: 1) broaden the knowledge base of the criminal justice field about CBA; 2) deepen knowledge and practice in this area; and 3) support practitioners in building their capacity to promote, use, and interpret CBA results in criminal justice settings. To achieve these goals, Vera:
- Developed www.cbkb.org to serve as a go-to resource for CBA in criminal justice and the active center of a growing community of practice;
- Developed an array of interactive and educational materials for the website;
- Engaged policymakers, practitioners, and cost-benefit subject matter experts in roundtable discussions on cost-benefit topics; and
- Provided general education and training on criminal justice CBA to a variety of national audiences.
The CBKB website offers a free reference database of more than 500 cost-benefit studies, articles, and papers that evaluate criminal justice functions, such as corrections, law enforcement, and a broad range of justice initiatives. Most of the reports have been published in peer-reviewed journals; others have been issued by research institutions or government agencies. References in the database are organized by such subjects as courts, crime prevention, probation and parole, reentry, substance use and mental health, and victimization costs. Vera regularly updates the database as new cost-benefit studies are published. In addition to providing a repository for resources, CBKB promotes an active community of practice and learning. According to Tina Chiu, Vera’s director of technical assistance, “Practitioners can interact with one another through CBKB’s blog and webinars, and through social media and in other contexts.” The website also features audio and video podcasts and PowerPoint presentations that offer quick, easy-to-understand information about CBA in criminal justice. For example, one blog post titled, “Quantity isn’t quality: A look at the complex costs and benefits of policing,” focused on whether the benefits of hiring more police officers outweigh the costs. “This type of easy-to-read, nontechnical commentary helps readers understand how CBA works in real life,” said Chiu. Vera also convened and facilitated conversations through various roundtable discussions across the country on such topics as building a cost-benefit analysis capacity and CBA’s impact on law enforcement. Vera invited representatives from state agencies, police chiefs, and experts on policing research to participate in these roundtable discussions to share information about CBKB resources and best practices for using economic analysis in the criminal justice field. Additionally, to promote learning and education on CBA and the use of CBKB resources, BJA has funded Vera’s participation in events such as the Correctional Management Institute of Texas (CMIT) Senior-Level Leadership Development Program, which is designed to emphasize senior managers’ use of strategic and critical thinking in decisionmaking. The CMIT program focuses on the economic and financial challenges for these managers, and how understanding the value of CBA can help in career mobility. Participants in the program included personnel from adult and juvenile probation departments, sheriff’s departments, and county jails from throughout Texas. Vera also worked with the New Mexico Department of Public Safety to use CBA when reviewing grant applications. Vera helped the department set up and run a working group on law enforcement costs to develop a CBA model for New Mexico that quantifies law enforcement costs. Use of this model allows the state to establish economic indicators for a program’s potential financial worthiness and effectiveness, and to determine the cost-effectiveness of active programs. In addition to the two examples above, Vera is currently providing direct TA services to jurisdictions and agencies in four states –Pennsylvania, Colorado, Washington, and New Mexico. Vera looks forward to sharing more information about this work on the CBKB website in the coming months. Jurisdictions and agencies interested in implementing CBA as a part of their ongoing decisionmaking process can refer to the CBKB paper on building CBA capacity. Through these efforts, Vera has helped criminal justice practitioners and jurisdictions across the country to build their capacity to conduct cost-benefit studies and apply CBA results to support policymaking. Vera staff understand the growing need for cost-benefit capacity in the criminal justice field and believe the CBKB is a valuable tool to help policymakers evaluate the success of their programs and policy initiatives to achieve improved outcomes. For more information on the Vera Institute’s Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank, visit http://www.cbkb.org. To submit the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration to be featured in a future TTA Spotlight, please email BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.