The Value of Data for Oregon’s Troubled Youth

A corrections agency’s effort to use data on what works to inform its professionals’ decisions promises better outcomes for those in its care.
by | May 3, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

Much of what seems "right" in life is a pure judgment call. In the business of government, as elsewhere in life, it's easier to run on tradition than it is to use facts to uncover what works and what doesn't.

Tradition, in the form of hard-earned professional experience, has worked reasonably well for the Oregon Youth Authority. But, driven by ever-decreasing budgets and a passion to deliver the best possible outcomes for the young men and women in its custody, the agency was looking for a better way. So it began digging into a huge pile of data to uncover what actually reforms youth, keeps communities safe, prevents victimization and reduces costs — trying to unearth the holy grail of its corrections work.

While OYA, of course, has long been attempting to do the right thing for the youths in its care, the facts about what works and what doesn't have not been a part of the decision-making process in any formal way. Fariborz Pakseresht, OYA's director, believes the agency's ground-breaking data-driven Youth Reformation System is a revolution in the making.

The system utilizes historical case data about demand, facility placement, program placement, length of stay, programming, treatment, education, transition preparation, and post-parole support and community involvement to help treatment professionals plan the best path for each its young charges.

"Each youth today is similar to dozens of youth who have been served by OYA or our community partners." explains Paul Bellatty, research and evaluation manager for both OYA and the Oregon Department of Corrections. "We're now identifying the best path for each youth based upon how similar youth did in the last five years."

The impact of the new approach extends well beyond the walls and fences of OYA: Imagine a judge deciding on the fate of a young offender when the most ideal solution is known, rather than merely guessing. "We are able to determine what types of youth do well in what settings," explains OYA research analyst Shannon Myrick, who heads the new data-driven effort. What excites Myrick is the increased chance of getting kids on a path to becoming productive members of society rather than future adult-prison inmates.

As you might imagine, the professionals involved in making these decisions were seriously concerned at the outset that their judgment was going to be replaced by rigid computer logic. So the data folks had the top professionals evaluate placement their traditional way, and then ran the youths through their system. The result: a 95 percent correlation. The professionals still make the decisions about treatment, but the new system informs those decisions.

"In the next several years, the system — if we do our job of implementing it well — should knit itself together while providing great quality-control information along the way," explains Myrick. The data will make clear which approaches are working and which ones are not, driving better and better outcomes. In addition to the new system, OYA now is using data to drive all of its outcomes and to monitor the performance of its core processes.

Enthusiasm in the agency runs high for the Youth Reformation System because of the belief that it will make a real difference in the lives of youths who get into trouble. But the story goes beyond that. The shortest path from trouble to a productive and sustainable return to society is also the lowest-cost path.