A variety of policies, programs and practices are used to prevent and reduce youth crime and violence. Many of these could potentially be evidence-based, but establishing rigorous evidence requires considerable investments of time and resources. Only a relatively small number of all possible crime-reduction approaches have been tested sufficiently to merit the label, “evidence-based.” Becoming an evidence-based program or practice is a developmental process that takes persistence, careful management, and often close collaboration with researchers.
Evidence-based policies refer to broad strategies that have been used to reduce crime and violence and that have been shown to be effective through rigorous research. For example, if high-quality research showed that wide-scale implementation of a community-based supervision strategy reduced the total incidence of probation revocations, this might be termed an evidence-based policy, even if the research evidence addressed effects at the community level rather than at the level of individuals or the impact of a particular program on individual behavior.
Evidence-based programs are usually brand-named interventions designed to change the behavior of individual offenders. These programs usually include manuals, protocols, training, technical assistance and certification, often sold or endorsed by the program developers themselves. Various forms of family therapy and cognitive-behavioral interventions, for example, have been tested by researchers and found to have measurable effects on behavior.
Evidence-based practices are operational characteristics or agency procedures that may be used in isolation or in combination with various programs and policies. Mentoring, group counseling, skill development, and work-related interventions are examples of generic practices that have been included in evidence-based programs. Many other practices could eventually be termed evidence-based, but the research literature on youth justice practices remains very small. For example, perhaps a particular method of notifying families about court appearances was effective in preventing failures to appear, and in turn this lowered re-arrests. Should such a practice be evaluated for its effect on crime levels, and even be called an evidence-based practice?
To be considered evidence-based, a policy, program, or practice must be tested according to rigorous standards. Several experimental or many quasi-experimental studies — ideally carried out in different locations and at different times — must demonstrate significant community or client improvements that are consistent with articulated goals.
Intervention approaches that do not meet evidence-based criteria, but that have other supporting evidence of effectiveness, may still be science-based or evidence-informed. A program that has been found to be effective in one or two empirical studies, for example, might be useful for an agency considered research-based if not yet evidence-based. Even interventions that have never been rigorously tested may still be considered “promising,” and some of these may have the potential to become research based and evidence based.
The Evidence Generation team recommends using evidence-informed programs and practices whenever possible, but it is important for agencies to pursue new and innovative practices that fit their mission, their clientele, and their intervention philosophy. If an agency cannot locate an evidence-based program or practice that fits their mission and their approach, it may not be because the agency is off-target or misinformed. It may be due to bias or lack of vision among the policymakers and funding organizations that control investment in social programs and evaluation research on those programs. Such decisions often reflect the values of the dominant culture and it is difficult for new and innovative practices to break through.
Other Resources: “What’s the Evidence for Evidence-Based Practice?“