Today’s guest post is authored by Katy Weinstein Miller, Chief of Programs & Initiatives at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.
In 2013, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón launched a new approach to handling juvenile delinquency. Rather than prosecute young people accused of certain felony offenses, the office began offering them the opportunity to participate in “restorative community conferencing” – a facilitated, community-based conversation with the person they harmed, leading to an agreed plan for addressing that harm. This model, called Make It Right, is an important step for San Francisco and for the field of criminal justice. At a time when our juvenile caseload is at historic lows but our racial and ethnic disparities are at historic highs, we need new ways to address crime, promote healing, and make our community safer.
The implementation of Make It Right presented an opportunity – and in DA Gascón’s, view, an obligation – to rigorously research the effectiveness of the program through a randomized control trial (RCT). Our justice system has long operated based on precedent and gut instinct, with little attention to studying results. While often at odds, prosecutors, defense counsel and judges have shared a reluctance to engage in research that impacts the way they handle their cases. To be sure, this is understandable for professionals who have been trained to give each case, and each client, individualized consideration.
RCTs present heightened ethical concerns for justice system stakeholders, particularly for diversion programs. Random assignment requires us to deny the opportunity for some young people, but not others, to avoid prosecution and potentially alter their life course. Conversely, it denies some victims the established protections of the court system. Both our defendants and those they have harmed are disproportionately vulnerable populations. Our gut tells us that restorative models can yield better outcomes than traditional prosecution – for both the young person and the victim – but without research, we just don’t know if that’s true. The fact that our system disproportionately impacts vulnerable individuals in high stakes situations should underscore, not undercut, the need to employ rigorous methods to determine what works.
While logistical challenges can often derail RCTs in the justice sector, Make It Right’s design makes it well-suited for random assignment. Our Juvenile Unit Managing Attorney reviews all of San Francisco’s juvenile cases, promoting uniformity in charging decisions and clarity about Make It Right program eligibility. Following a three-step process, she determines (1) whether the case is chargeable; (2) whether the presenting offense is eligible for the program; and (3) whether the youth is ineligible to participate due to certain factors (such as geographic limitations and prior record/current probation status). All cases flagged as eligible for the program are forwarded to our Juvenile Division Office Manager, who uses a randomized block method to assign the case to either treatment or control groups. In each block of 10 cases, 7 are assigned to treatment, and 3 to control. If case is randomized into the treatment group, our Office Manager directly refers the case to our nonprofit partners, who offer the program to the young person and victim, and facilitate the restorative process. If the case is randomized into the control group, the Office Manager prepares the charging documents for filing in court. The randomization process has yielded an unexpected benefit: because our Managing Attorney can only refer cases that she is prepared to prosecute, it ensures that she is not using Make It Right to “widen the net” of young people involved in our justice system – which is often a negative effect of implementing diversion programs.
For us, the hardest part of the Make It Right RCT is waiting for the results. Preliminary findings are strongly encouraging – but the small scale of Make It Right means it is taking time to yield statistically significant findings. The patience required to conduct rigorous research stands in direct contrast to our sense of urgency to reform the justice system – but we know that the results of that research will enable all of us to make more meaningful, effective change.
The Make It Right program is a partnership of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, nonprofits Community Works West, Huckleberry Youth Programs, and research & innovation center Impact Justice. The program is under evaluation by the California Policy Lab at the University of California’s Goldman School of Public Policy.