Evidence Generation — What is the SPEP?


The Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol (SPEP) is a program quality assessment for juvenile justice agencies (Lipsey et al 2010). Using the SPEP, a program can determine whether its practices conform to existing knowledge about recidivism reduction.

Existing knowledge, of course, means prior research funded at levels sufficient to generate high quality publications. Some potentially effective approaches are never sufficiently evaluated. Thus, the principles endorsed by the SPEP should be considered provisional, based on the results of previous investments by the governments and philanthropies that fund program evaluation research.

The SPEP assigns points to various program elements, each ranging from 0 to 100. The rating scheme was developed from a meta-analysis of over 500 independent studies of youth justice interventions.

Four program components were found to be most important for reducing recidivism (Howell & Lipsey, 2012; Lipsey et al., 2010; Lipsey & Howell, 2012):

  1. Risk-level: interventions with high-risk offenders produced greater reductions in recidivism.
  2. Treatment Philosophy: interventions based on therapeutic philosophies such as skill building and counseling were more effective than control-based approaches that emphasized things like discipline, deterrence, and surveillance.
  3. Type of Intervention: Programs that were based on a therapeutic approach were further broken into generic types. For example, the skills-building category included behavioral, cognitive behavioral, social skills, challenge, academic, and job-related skills. Of these program types, behavioral and cognitive behavioral skill-building programs performed best. Similarly, counseling included individual, family, family crisis, group, peer, and mixed. Family counseling and mentoring were the most effective types among the counseling programs. Within these program types, brand-name programs were not more effective than no-name programs. For example Multi-Systemic Therapy and Functional Family Therapy performed approximately as well as the no-name “family counseling” programs.
  4. Quality and Amount of Service: Programs were more effective when they provided longer service duration and more contact hours (up to a point of diminishing returns), as well as when they were implemented with higher quality.

Scoring Program Elements

The SPEP scores these elements based on the services provided by an agency, how well they are implemented, and the risk-level of the population served. Scores are assigned in five categories.

Primary Service (35 possible points)
Are the types of interventions and services provided among those found to be most effective in reducing further contact?

  • High average effect (35 points)
  • Moderate average effect (25 points)
  • Low average effect (15 points)

Supplemental Service (5 possible points)
Are qualifying supplemental services provided?

Treatment Amount (15 possible points)
Duration: percent of youth who receive target number of service weeks
100% (10 points) 80% (8 points) 20% (2 points)
Contact hours: percent of youth who receive target hours of service
100% (15 points) 80% (12 points) 60% (9 points) 20% (3 points)

Treatment Quality (15 possible points)
What is the rated quality of services delivered?
Low (5 points) Medium (10 points) High (15 points)

Youth Risk Level (20 possible points)
What percent of youth served are at the target risk level or higher?
25% (5 points) 50% (10 points) 75% (15 points) 99% (20 points)

Guidelines, Not Prescriptions

SPEP assigns scores to what organizations do, how much of it they do, and the characteristics of the clients they serve, based upon knowledge from previous studies. It is not a prescription for what all agencies should do because the findings of previous studies are never comprehensive. In other words, researchers have not tested all possible practices and all feasible approaches for working with justice-involved youth. To ensure that a program is consistent with prior knowledge, however, the SPEP allows agencies to design their practices according to criteria established by past evaluations.



Howell, James C. and Mark W. Lipsey (2012). Research-based guidelines for juvenile justice programs. Justice Research and Policy, 14(1), 17-34.

Lipsey, Mark W. and James C. Howell (2012). A broader view of evidence-based programs reveals more options for state juveniles justice systems. Criminology & Public Policy, 11(3), 515-523.

Lipsey, Mark W., James C. Howell, J.C., Marion R. Kelly, Gabrielle Chapman and Darin Carver (2010). Improving the effectiveness of juvenile justice programs: A new perspective on evidence-based practice. Washington, D.C.: Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.