Trendspotting: Evidence-Based Planning

Driving to the airport a few days ago, I heard a report about how “primitive” cultures that do not use a paper or coin currency make decisions about the value of goods and services without using numbers. Since every transaction, and many interactions, we have every day involves numbers, I found the discussion intriguing. Societies that can assign value, govern, police, defend, and educate themselves without numerical evidence fly in the face of our technology-based culture.
The very same day an article by Bob Herbert in The New York Times was devoted to how numbers (let’s call it evidence) drive virtually every decision “developed” societies make from political polls to the Dow Jones average. Any given night television news will provide at least a dozen hours interpreting the evidence that new numbers bring. Herbert’s advice was simple: consider the source and be wary of the application.
He also suggested that “we behave as though the numbers are an end in themselves” and that “what data-zealots need to do is leave their hermetically sealed rooms and step outside.” Through both the print and broadcast media and from the literate and the illiterate branches of society, we are receiving strangely similar advice: beware of numbers.
An argument could be made that during an economic slowdown, numbers represent the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s not the numbers but the interpretation that either saves or sinks us. This is especially true in the forecasting arena.
In the past several months I have had the sobering experience of re-examining bed-space projections that I helped create in the mid-2000s. Like most models, past performance of average daily population, for example, is used as one of the indices of future trends. Any forecast developed in 2005, for example, would have used data from the 90s and early 80s as a basis for regression analyses.
During this timeframe, year-on-year increases were occurring which were reflected in most forecast models. In two jurisdictions that I am intimately involved with, at least $350 million in funded projects have been stopped. The bed-space forecasts that drove the size of the projects were prepared during the mid-2000s.
Recessions in the past have not resulted in decreases in jail and prison population. In fact, conversations at vendor-sponsored parties often suggest that a poor economy produces more crime and thus arrests, incarceration, and bed-space needs. However, new numbers suggest that the times are a changing, or have already changed.
At the time this article was going to press, the legislature in Kentucky was passing a penal reform act that requires alternative sanctions for many drug offenders. The estimated annual cost avoidance for sanctions in lieu of incarceration is $42 million. Virtually every state is reexamining the traditional practice of locking up drug users and smalltime pushers, as well as other non-violent offenders.
Not for a moment does this policy shift mean that we have solved the substance abuse problem; we have simply shifted the responsibility for curing. Most correctional professionals have always known that incarceration was about as effective cure for substance addiction as Debbie Cakes are to obesity, but, lo, our politicians needed to be elected on platforms of toughness, not intelligence.
What if the nation as a whole achieved the 20 percent reduction in incarceration that New York accomplished since 1999 without a corresponding increase in the crime rate? That would be almost a half-million fewer people eating institutional food every day. We could actually return our required facilities for the seriously dangerous criminals to a reasonable operating capacity. While such an outcome would significantly alter the livelihood of many folks who design, construct, equip, maintain, service, and manage places of incarceration, we probably would spend less money correcting aberrant behavior.
I would like to think that this epiphany in the correctional system we are now witnessing is based on numbers other than those resulting from cost cuts. I do believe that many alternative sanctions will yield much better outcomes than wholesale incarceration. What I am skeptical about, however, is that cost savings realized through bed-space reduction will not be invested in alternative forms of community control. If we fail to invest in a continuum of care, we will be back in bed-space production again.
My issue here is how do responsible professionals produce credible forecasts of future incarceration needs based on what has occurred in the past two years? And if the economy regains momentum during the next two years, will the budget hatchet be returned to the storage shed and the cost containment belt loosened again? Developing reliable numbers based on knee-jerk reactions to strategic problems, such as budget deficits, is a frightening scenario.
Human nature pushes us towards simple answers. One of which would be to simply suspend planning for an uncertain future and monitor how things evolve over the next few years. Perhaps this downward trend is not only about deficit reduction and really is a dramatic social adjustment that happens every few decades when we finally have enough evidence that whatever we have been doing really wasn’t good value for money.
At times like these, one can’t help but envy those “primitive” societies that never learned how to use numbers and yet have survived because they had no choice but to make decisions based on what works and not what if. Technology, and the numbers that we can now generate to prove anything, has in a way removed our willingness to leave our “hermetically sealed rooms” and make intuitive, rather than empirically-based, decisions.
Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Laureate, said his fear is that “as technology makes it harder not to know, it chips away at the duty, after knowing, of understanding: of asking why, making sense of things, judging, empathizing — and of committing.” I believe he was suggesting that the evidence that we are doing what is right is not always found in numbers. We have to get outside more often.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.