MDRC Center for Criminal Justice Research

Overview

MDRC’s Center for Criminal Justice Research is dedicated to developing, evaluating, and disseminating actionable models for justice reform that improve efficacy, mitigate harm, and center those directly impacted by the criminal legal system.

We are committed to advancing evidence-based, equitable, and accessible solutions, sharing research findings with nontechnical audiences, and dignifying the experiences of those affected by incarceration.

We recognize the complexities and cumulative effects of system involvement on individuals and their communities and draw upon MDRC’s decades of research on employment, education, and housing, among the other social service areas, to develop cross-cutting policy lessons and best practices.

The Center for Criminal Justice Research adopts rigorous research methodologies to identify and implement effective solutions to systemic problems. We partner with national and local criminal justice agencies, policymakers, and community-based organizations to assess reforms, practices, and programs that seek to increase fairness, reduce unnecessary incarceration, support public safety, lessen racial and economic inequities, improve the lives of the people and communities impacted by the criminal legal system, and diminish the system’s role in perpetuating poverty.

Our body of work includes large-scale demonstrations, multiyear mixed-methods studies, program evaluations, and exploratory projects across the criminal legal system’s key process points. In each project, we employ a system-level analysis to examine how institutional policies and practices shape the everyday encounters of those involved.

We are interested in developing and sustaining research-practice partnerships that promote organizational culture shifts that advance our mission. For more information, please contact: ccjr@mdrc.org.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The MDRC Center for Criminal Justice Research has a robust portfolio of projects focusing on pretrial reforms, jail-based services, reentry programs for returning citizens, and programs for young people involved in the justice system.

Pretrial Reforms

The Pretrial Justice Collaborative. A diverse group of eight jurisdictions from across the United States have teamed up with MDRC’s Center for Criminal Justice Research and Justice System Partners (JSP) to form the Pretrial Justice Collaborative. The goal of the Collaborative is to build and disseminate reliable, usable evidence about the most effective strategies for reducing pretrial detention, minimizing conditions of supervision while cases are adjudicated, and reducing racial and economic disparities, while maintaining court appearance rates. The MDRC-JSP team will work with jurisdictions to analyze existing pretrial practices, conduct a process study to examine rates of arrests and release conditions and outcomes such as court appearance rates, and assess racial and/or ethnic disparities throughout various parts of the case processing pipeline. A subset of the jurisdictions will advance to a second tier of research that includes additional racial equity analyses as well as rigorous impact analyses of the comparative effectiveness of different pretrial supervision approaches, with a focus on court appearance rates.

New York City Supervised Release. MDRC conducted a process and impact study of a citywide pretrial Supervised Release (SR) program that offers judges an alternative to bail for individuals awaiting trial. SR aims to reduce the use of money bail and pretrial detention while ensuring individuals’ appearance in court and maintaining public safety. The evaluation described how SR operated and assessed its effects on cash bail, pretrial detention, court appearance rates, new arrests, and case dispositions.

Pretrial reforms that include the Public Safety Assessment. MDRC evaluated pretrial criminal justice system reforms that included the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), a risk-based decision-making tool designed by Arnold Ventures. Used in over 38 jurisdictions nationwide, the PSA seeks to provide courts and judges with objective data to inform decisions about whether an individual facing criminal charges can be safely released pretrial and whether that individual will return to court. Key research questions were whether the reforms reduced costly jail stays, whether detention was targeted to individuals deemed high-risk by the PSA, whether individuals showed up to court hearings, and whether they were arrested for new crimes.

New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Advancing Racial Equity (NJ CARE) Study. In January 2017, the state of New Jersey implemented a sweeping set of reforms to its pretrial justice system to improve fairness in decision-making while also protecting public safety and making sure people with open cases still appear in court. This study will assess the New Jersey reforms' impacts on racial equity in pretrial practices and identify potential underlying mechanisms—local reforms, court and police cultures, community engagement approaches, equity considerations, and community characteristics—that may explain any observed county-level improvements in equity. Throughout the study, MDRC will strive to elevate the voices of individuals with lived experience in the system and individuals with a direct role in system processes, who will contribute to the study's participatory approach.    

Jail-Based Services

Rikers Island Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience. MDRC oversaw the implementation of a program that provided cognitive behavioral therapy to more than 3,000 16- to 18-year-old young people incarcerated at Rikers Island jail. The project—part of the nation’s first Social Impact Bond—focused on personal responsibility education, training, and counseling, with the goal of reducing the likelihood of reincarceration.

Rikers Island Single Stop. MDRC conducted an impact evaluation of a jail-based program designed to connect individuals serving sentences at Rikers Island jail with food stamp and Medicaid benefits upon their release.

Returning Citizens

Los Angeles County Reentry Integrated Services Project.  This project is designed to address the needs of individuals with justice system involvement who are under the supervision of the Department of Probation. MDRC’s study includes the development of innovative evidence-based approaches to reentry services, technical assistance, an implementation and impact study, and a cost-benefit analysis. This project offers Los Angeles County a systematic approach to service administration and an assessment of the impacts of its reentry service models.

Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration.  MDRC led this large-scale seven-site federal evaluation project sponsored by the Department of Labor focused on the next generation of subsidized employment programs that target people who have been incarcerated and other groups with barriers to employment.

Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) Transitional Jobs Program.  MDRC’s random assignment evaluation of this New York City program found that it reduced recidivism, especially among people recently released from prison, and was cost effective. MDRC later assessed the implementation of an enhanced CEO model in several upstate New York locations, San Diego, and Tulsa.

Returning Citizens Stimulus.  CEO partnered with Blue Meridian Partners and a variety of reentry-service providers to issue conditional cash transfers to citizens released from incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple jurisdictions throughout the United States. This study examined how the payments affect beneficiaries’ financial stability, engagement in services, economic mobility, physical and mental health, incarceration, and involvement in the criminal justice system during a global pandemic and for up to one year following the last payment.

Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration.  MDRC used a random assignment design to evaluate four programs for returning citizens in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Paul that were designed to reduce recidivism and increase employment.

Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Evaluation.  MDRC was a partner in a random assignment evaluation that tested 24 employment programs for people who had been incarcerated in 18 states to evaluate their impact on employment outcomes and recidivism.

Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Employment (CBI-Emp).  MDRC rigorously evaluated the CBI-Emp intervention, which includes a curriculum and staff training developed by the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute and MDRC, designed for people with recent involvement in the criminal justice system to find and maintain employment. The CBI-Emp intervention was tested in a randomized controlled trial at three organizations serving fathers in the federally funded Building Bridges and Bonds demonstration project.

Changing Attitudes and Motivation in Parolees.  MDRC conducted a multisite study of the implementation of an innovative parole-based intervention intended to improve the motivation of individuals on parole and address their cognitive and behavioral functioning through specially trained parole officers.

Young People with Justice System Involvement

Roca. Roca delivers services to young men in Baltimore who have been involved in the justice system and who are identified as being a high risk of participating in violence or being affected by it. Young men served by the program have endured substantial trauma, including trauma related to poverty, systemic racism, and violence. Roca uses a multiyear, cognitive behavioral intervention model that aims to help young men address the trauma they have faced and learn skills that help them regulate their emotions and behaviors. MDRC is partnering with Roca to conduct an evaluation of the program participants’ outcomes.

PACE Center for Girls.  MDRC conducted a 15-site random assignment evaluation of this Florida-based program that provides academic education, case management, and gender-specific life skills training to young women who are either involved or at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.

Bridges to Pathways.  MDRC evaluated a Chicago-based program for young men between 17 and 21 who were previously incarcerated that combines academics (geared toward earning a diploma or equivalent), social-emotional learning, and workforce development with the aim of reducing recidivism and violent crime and improving workforce and education outcomes.

Youth Villages Transitional Living Program.  This program provides intensive, individualized, and clinically focused case management, support, and counseling to young people making the transition out of the foster care and juvenile justice systems in Tennessee. MDRC’s random assignment evaluation assessed the program’s impact on criminal justice involvement, employment, and educational attainment.

Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential (LEAP).  MDRC conducted a 10-site study of this three-year nationwide program that provides education and employment services to young people ages 14-25 who are homeless, aging out of the foster care system, or otherwise involved in the child welfare, criminal justice, or juvenile justice systems.