BetaGov: Advancing RCTs in Criminal Justice

In the Fall 2018 issue of Translational Criminology,  Justin Escamilla, Jessica Reichert, Maureen Hillhouse, and Angela Hawken describe the efforts the BetaGov initiative to advance randomized control trials (RCTs) in the public sector:

BetaGov is a multidisciplinary group of academic and practice-experienced researchers who help agencies explore possible improvements in policies and practices in domains ranging from criminal justice to education. BetaGov’s approach is unconventional by design; BetaGov exists because conventional approaches to conceptualizing and conducting research to test policies and practices can be inefficient, and the results are often irrelevant to real-world practitioners and policymakers. BetaGov was created to promote scientific evaluations of policies and practices via RCTs and to make these assessments the norm rather than the exception. BetaGov’s mission is to help agencies, policymakers, and others develop, conduct, analyze, and share research on policies and practices that affect the public they serve. Guidance from BetaGov—provided at no cost to the end user—facilitates design and implementation of research conducted by service agencies and departments at all government levels. The goal is to significantly increase the pace of learning about policies pertaining to health services, social services, criminal justice, education, and other domains; identify promising innovations; and identify policies and practices that are inefficient or ineffective.

With BetaGov’s guidance and assistance, practitioners can carry out their own RCTs. Being able to design and implement a trial without funding and often without regulatory hurdles means that the trial can be more quickly conducted and completed. The private sector has long relied on simple, pragmatic RCTs to improve efficiency and performance; BetaGov promotes the use of these same techniques to inform policy solutions for the most challenging health and social problems.

The authors describe a specific example of BetaGov's work with the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority:

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) is a state government agency that administers federal criminal justice grants and serves as the state’s Statistical Analysis Center for criminal justice research. Researchers from ICJIA were recruited to evaluate a newly established 2018 prisoner reentry program in Illinois. The program, Pathway to Enterprise for Returning Citizens (PERC), offers entrepreneurship training to individuals returning to Cook County, Illinois, communities from prison. The training focuses on how to start a business, offers a mentor for support, and provides an opportunity to obtain a small business loan. There is very little research on prior entrepreneurship reentry programs and none employing an RCT design.

The ICJIA researchers were tasked with measuring program benefits. They sought to collect program process information1 and use an RCT to compare program outcomes, such as securing employment, reducing recidivism (arrest and reincarceration), and starting a business. As a government agency with research experience but few prior opportunities to apply an RCT, ICJIA partnered with BetaGov for assistance. BetaGov and ICJIA researchers scheduled regular conference calls to discuss evaluation components and RCT implementation. The team stratified applicants by prison release date and distance from PERC training agencies, and BetaGov completed the random assignment of program applicants into either the treatment group (PERC-trained) or the control condition (on parole with no PERC training). With BetaGov’s help, ICJIA researchers saved time while avoiding the appearance of possible bias in participant selection

More on BetaGov (pdf)

Tile photo by Max Bender.

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