Cost-benefit analysis: Building the will and the way

By , April 26, 2013

The title of a new publication from Vera’s Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank for Criminal Justice (CBKB) is admittedly a mouthful: Building Cost-Benefit Analysis Capacity in Criminal Justice: Notes from a Roundtable Discussion. It also includes a dreaded word: capacity. “Capacity” is described as a vague, quasi-occult term in its entry in the Communications Network’s Jargon Finder, and “capacity-building” sits at the top of an unofficial nonprofit jargon top 10 list.

So what are we talking about when we talk about capacity, particularly in the context of cost-benefit analysis in criminal justice? Why did CBKB hold a roundtable discussion on it, and why does the CBKB staff provide targeted technical assistance to help jurisdictions build it?

The process of using information from cost-benefit studies consistently to make better-informed decisions doesn’t happen overnight. There may be a way, but not the will; CBAs may yield compelling and helpful insights, but only if policymakers and decision makers are willing and able to make use of such information. Or the opposite may be true: there may be a high demand for cost-benefit studies on particular policy issues, but high-quality or relevant CBAs don’t exist, which is often the case for criminal and juvenile justice questions.

By “capacity,” we mean the ability to conduct good cost-benefit studies and to demand CBA-related information for planning and policymaking. How a jurisdiction—and the criminal justice field generally—can reach this level of skill and sustained interest in CBA was the focus of the roundtable.

The resulting publication captures only a sliver of what the discussion covered but it contains concrete suggestions about the kind of organizations that can build and house CBA expertise; the characteristics of staff who can do this work and how to find them; and multiple ways to integrate CBA information into decision-making processes.

Will you get overnight results if you follow these recommendations and advice? Unfortunately, no. But the information from the roundtable can set you and your jurisdiction on a clearer path to establishing both the will and the way to using CBA in criminal justice.

This post also appears on “Current Thinking,” the blog of the Vera Institute of Justice, which is the Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank’s parent organization.

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