Randomized Controlled Trials in Criminal Justice

On June 8, 2016, from 2:00-3:30 pm eastern, the Smart Policing Initiative presented a webinar on “Using Randomized Controlled Trials in Criminal Justice.” This webinar was presented by Dr. Gipsy Escobar, Director of Research at Measures for Justice, and Dr. Michael D. White, Professor and Director of the Ph.D. Program at the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Arizona State University. Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are considered the gold standard of scientific research because they allow the researcher to control the delivery of the intervention as well as to randomly assign subjects (or geographic areas) to treatment and control groups. This approach eliminates the potential effect that factors external to the intervention may have on the outcome, thus avoiding “contamination” of the results and allowing discussion of causal connection between the intervention and changes in the outcome.

The last two decades have seen a significant increase in the use of RCTs to evaluate criminal justice programs, especially police interventions, with very promising results. Police “treatments” that have been studied with RCT designs include arrest policies for domestic violence calls, hot spots initiatives, and body-worn camera use. This webinar introduced participants to the basic principles of experimental research in natural (non-laboratory) settings. Participants learned about when RCT is an appropriate research option, the advantages and disadvantages of experiments, implementation and analytical issues, and ethical and practical considerations. The webinar also reviewed examples of police interventions that have used RCT designs in their implementation and evaluation and discussed lessons learned from those experiences.

  • CrimeSolutions.gov (2016). Philadelphia Policing Tactics Experiment: Offender-Focused Policing. Program Profile. https://www.crimesolutions.gov/ProgramDetails.aspx?ID=449
  • Jennings, W.G., M.D. Lynch & L.A. Fridell (2015). Evaluating the impact of police officer body-worn cameras (BWCs) on response-to-resistance and serious external complaints: Evidence from the Orlando police department (OPD) experience utilizing a randomized controlled experiment. Journal of Criminal Justice 43: 480-486.