Monday, December 11, 2006

Contingent Valuation and Corrections Sentencing Policy

I mentioned a while back that I had received my latest Criminology & Public Policy and that it had its usual valuable sets of articles. The lead set relates public perceptions and preferences of incarceration v. rehab for serious juvenile crime. Not real surprisingly, the study found that African-American participants favored rehab more than whites did, women more than men, high income more than low income, self-id’ed liberals more than self-id’ed conservatives. Of note, though, all the groups above saw rehab as valuable, enough for the authors to conclude that policymakers didn’t have to worry as much as they might think about backlash for supporting juvenile rehab. (Can’t academics be so cute and cuddly?)

What’s of particular interest and value to me from this article, though, is its use of contingent valuation (CV) in its survey questioning. Simply put, CV methodology asks respondents not just if they support a policy but also how much they would pay for it. This allows more and better analysis of responses and, less positively, some tentative cost-benefit consideration. On average, the authors found that their respondents “expressed somewhat greater willingness to pay for rehabilitation ($98.10) than for longer incarceration ($80.97) of youths charged with serious crimes—and even greater willingness to pay for an early childhood prevention program ($125.71).”

It’s not just the greater precision of preference that I like about this approach. It’s that respondents are asked at all. Too often, studies and surveys do a “do you like crime?” thing that, of course, feeds the perception that cost is no limit given such strong public sentiment. But add a “if you had to pay” and you get a more reasoned and nuanced answer. It’s good to put respondents in the same position their policymakers are in. It’s even better to have them consider different options, like this study did.

Now, to be done fairly, those studies need to provide the most accurate info and data on the costs and benefits of the options provided. This is clearly ground for politics, but also a place where sentencing info systems and intensive evidence-based approaches we’ve discussed here can assist. I’ve worked with focus groups which explicitly had to discuss costs and benefits after initial surveying and then saw the changed responses when the initial “shoot all the b…...ds” reaction had to be filtered and talked through the others. It’s so important to get info out there in both a meaningful way and a responsible context (the latter usually disregarded by the “we need to get our message out better” folks). Making people actually use the info and be held to account for that use, as this study did, brings out the kind of deliberation democratic theorists advocate.

So, if you get a chance, pick up an issue and look at the study (not online). Its impact on juvenile sentencing will likely not be as valuable as its contribution to framing study and discussion for once on solid informational ground.

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