The Economist, August 13th 2010

When it comes to criminal justice, Winston Churchill’s saying that Americans can be relied on to do the right thing after they have tried everything else has to be modified: the right thing tends to get its day only when states run out of cash. A squeezed budget is one reason why Los Angeles County’s DA, Steve Cooley, is hostile to three strikes laws. Lack of money also explains why Republicans in South Carolina are considering a halt to imprisoning non-violent drug offenders. Sending someone to prison at a cost to the taxpayer of some $50,000 a year for trying to steal $29 worth of plumbing supplies is not only a daft idea; it is strictly a bull-market approach to criminal justice.

With some unlikely people now receptive to the idea that it would be good to imprison fewer people, a new book looking at failed experiments in criminal justice over the past decade or so is well timed. The premise of  “Learning from Failure” by Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox of New York’s Center for Court Innovation is that research into criminal justice suffers because so much attention is paid to programmes that succeeded and so little to the flops. The effect is familiar to pharmaceutical companies: a handful of successful drug trials get headlines while thousands of failures, with all the promising hypotheses they entail and data that they can yield, are forgotten.

The authors try to correct this bias by examining six programmes that excited lots of interest from fellow researchers (and even from the White House) but ultimately failed.

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