Rayanne Hawkins
Urban Institute
Business Operations Manager

Three tools for applying pay for success to the criminal justice system

November 16, 2017 - 3:32pm

You don’t have to look hard to see that America has an incarceration problem. According to BJS, in 2015 1 in 37 or about 2.7 percent of adults in the US were behind bars or under correctional supervision. Incarcerating so many people has negative consequences not only for the people who are detained, but also for their families and communities. Parents are separated from their children, and breadwinners from their families; as people lose the ability to contribute to the workforce, the raw and opportunity costs of incarceration start to stack up. Adding to the problem is the burden that the corrections field faces as a system of last resort for people who need treatment for mental health or substance use disorders.

Yet, we know there are programs that could help. The What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse for evidence-based criminal justice programs in reentry lists 11 promising or effective programs in the category of mental and physical health alone. However, implementing an evidence-based program can be expensive, especially paired with an evaluation to learn whether, why, and how it worked.

Enter pay for success (PFS), an innovative financing model that enables governments to finance better results or outcomes for vulnerable populations—like justice-involved people. It does this by attracting private funders to pay for an evidence-based program that could improve the lives of that population. If an independent evaluation demonstrates that the program had a positive impact on the chosen social outcome (e.g., employment, recidivism), then the government repays the private funders.

Pay for success has been used in the field of corrections since the first PFS project launched in the United States in 2013 at Rikers Island Jail. Fast forward five years, and there are now about 44 projects under development in the US that touch some aspect of the criminal justice system, most of which seek to prevent recidivism through workforce development, housing, or intensive case management. Our paper on lessons learned in PFS explains why criminal justice is well suited to PFS, and describes the landscape of criminal justice PFS projects.

PFS is one tool, among many, to procure new programming, but PFS projects can take a long time to plan and launch. Jurisdictions want to be sure that PFS is the right financing model for their local government, the specific problem, and the proposed program. Urban developed a tool to help gauge whether or not a criminal justice program is suitable for the PFS model. The Criminal Justice Assessment Tool (PFS-CJ) lays out 7 requisite and 6 supplementary elements that should be weighed when considering a PFS project.

Once PFS is determined to be the right funding tool, how do practitioners go about applying PFS principles to a promising intervention? Urban explored this question with a working group of practitioners interested in using PFS to start or scale a jurisdiction’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). CIT is a model of collaboration between police, behavioral health practitioners and the community that seeks to improve law enforcement responses to people experiencing crisis. The culmination of this effort is a deep dive report that highlights the operational and systems level alignments between PFS and CIT such as their shared focus on improved outcomes.

All three reports can also be found on our new criminal justice landing page, along with other resources for organizations and jurisdictions interested in pursuing a pay for success project in criminal justice.

Have a Pay for Success question? Ask our experts here!

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research. Photo via Shutterstock.