Program evaluation is one of the most important methods for assessing the process and impact of criminal justice programs and policies. In general, in program evaluations, researchers (e.g., university professors or people who work for private research organizations) work with practitioners (e.g., police or probation officers) to determine the effectiveness of programs designed to change offenders or people who might become offenders. This latter group of clients might be considered those at risk of committing crime; often, they are juveniles, but sometimes they are adults. In program evaluation researchers collect information, or data, about the program, staff, and clients; analyze it; and then report back to the program leaders and other important stakeholders regarding the results. Stakeholders might include policymakers, people who designed or developed the program, those who funded it, or interested community members. Sometimes evaluation results are then used by policymakers and practitioners to inform changes in their programs and policies.
Program evaluations have been increasingly important to criminal justice practice in the last few decades, in part because of limited resources. Criminal justice programs cost a lot of money (often millions of dollars), and decision makers, such as legislators, governors, county councils, or funding agencies such as the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, often have to make decisions about which programs to fund or continue to fund. There are typically many more programs requesting money than there is money to fund them. One way to distinguish between programs is to use the scientific evidence provided in program evaluations to determine which programs are most effective at reaching their goals. For example, legislators might want to fund programs that are best at reducing crime, decreasing recidivism, or preventing youth from getting into trouble. It is now typical for funding organizations to require agencies to include an evaluation component in their program plan when asking for funding, especially if there is not hard evidence of success already. Evaluations conducted to determine whether programs are performing to expectations are called summative evaluations (Rossi, Lipsey, & Freeman, 2004, p. 36).
Evaluations are also useful in helping people involved in administering the program learn more about it. Although it might seem that those involved in administering the program would know the most about it, they often do not know everything that might be useful. Evaluators can often provide some of this information, such as how well they are meeting the goals of the program (e.g., preventing recidivism or increasing school attendance), whether the program is serving the people it is intended to serve, and whether staff members are providing the program to their clients in the way they are supposed to. Program evaluations that are conducted specifically to help programs improve are called formative evaluations (Rossi et al., 2004, p. 34).
Staff members who do the daily work in programs sometimes truly believe that they are making a difference in the lives of their clients but have no scientific evidence on which to base their opinions. Instead, they use their own personal experience with individual cases to judge the impact of their actions. For example, a staff member might remember that one of his clients stopped committing crime, went to college, and started a successful career, or he might remember that he spent many hours with a youth and that the girl said it changed her life. Individual instances of success can make staff members feel very good about doing their jobs and can convince them that the program is working. This might be enough information for them to want to continue implementing the program. Some might believe that changing one life is worth all the effort. Program decision makers, however, are often more interested in the effects of their program on clients more generally. They may wonder about the percentages of clients who are remaining crime or drug free, staying in school, maintaining jobs, and so on, and how their program compares to other programs on these measures. Program evaluations can answer these types of questions.
The results of program evaluations also help other jurisdictions make decisions about what types of programs to implement. For example, a county probation department might be interested in making program changes to help prevent its clients from progressing into juvenile correctional facilities (being locked up). The administration might look to other jurisdictions to determine what programs have been implemented for juveniles on probation, how well they worked, and for whom they worked. They might also look for specific details about how to implement the programs (e.g., what to include or not include as treatment components, the types of staff needed, or problems to anticipate when creating or putting a new program into operation).
Academic audiences, or university professors and their students, also learn from program evaluations. Professors teach students about which programs are effective and which are not. Just as important, members of the academic community contribute to the scientific understanding of criminal justice by conducting research on programs and policies to determine whether they work. Sometimes researchers conduct program evaluations because they want their unique research skills to apply to real-world issues—they want to make a difference. Researchers usually realize that the results they produce from their studies may have an effect on how staff, offenders, and others are treated in the programs they evaluate or on whether a program receives or continues to receive funding. Collaboration among researchers and policymakers and practitioners is critical, because policymakers and practitioners are rarely trained in the scientific method and often do not know where to look for scientific research. Researchers who work in the field with people in criminal and juvenile justice programs can make research accessible and understandable. Policymakers and practitioners, in turn, provide academics with key details about the programs and their daily activities to help with the research. Sometimes, although not always, researchers also go beyond the purely practical reasons for conducting evaluations to test academic theories of crime, crime prevention, or offender treatment to see whether they work when applied in real situations.