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Reconviction rates should not be...the sole measure of success. They are crude proxies for reoffending and a very blunt tool for measuring the desistance process. is likely that reconviction rates will remain a key measure of area performance. How well they fulfil that role depends on a whole range of technical decisions about what is measured and how (Hedderman 2009: 124).

This report presents the findings of an Australian Institute of Criminology study into the measurement of juvenile recidivism and the use of recidivism as a measure of juvenile justice performance in Australia. The study, funded by the Australasian Juvenile Justice Administrators, sought to explore a broad range of areas, including:

  • how and to what extent juvenile justice services influence levels of recidivism;
  • the limitations of recidivism as a measure of performance (particularly in relation to juveniles);
  • the factors that may limit the extent of comparability when measuring juvenile recidivism across Australia’s jurisdictions;
  • additional or alternative outcome measures that could better assess the effectiveness of juvenile justice services; and
  • principles for measuring juvenile recidivism on a comparable basis across Australia’s jurisdictions.

In order to interrogate these research areas, a focused international literature review and a series of consultations with senior juvenile justice staff in each jurisdiction were undertaken. This report presents some key findings from the study.

What is performance measurement?

Performance measurement has emerged in recent years as a key strategy to assist governments and other service providers assess the impact of their operations, improve service provision and effectively target resources (Cunneen & Luke 2007; Mears & Butts 2008; Winokur, Tollett & Jackson 2002). A range of definitions of performance measurement have been proposed. The US Center for Accountability and Performance Measurement (cited in Bazemore 2006: v) defines performance measurement as

a method of gauging progress of a public program or activity in achieving the results or outcomes that clients, customers, or stakeholders expect...[it] tells people how well public programs are doing.

Mears and Butts (2008: 266) put forward the following definition of performance measurement:

[Performance measurement involves] the use of empirical indicators to document the extent to which intended services and activities are undertaken and to measure outcomes that are supposed to result from these services and activities (see also JJEC 2004; Thomas 2006).

Why measure the performance of juvenile justice agencies?

Juvenile justice agencies, both in Australia and internationally, have increasingly been called upon to measure their performance (JJEC 2004). Recently, the Florida Legislature mandated that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice evaluate the effectiveness of juvenile justice programs (Winokur et al. 2005). This demonstrates that the shift towards performance measurement in juvenile justice has even been legislated in some instances (see also JJEC 2004).

In the Australian context, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (2005) National Information Development Plan for Crime and Justice Statistics, which sought to identify Australia’s statistical priorities in the crime and justice area, highlighted a number of priority areas relevant to this project, including:

  • improving data comparability across jurisdictions;
  • developing statistics on juvenile contact with the crime and justice system; and
  • developing measures of recidivism.

Meaningful and comparable measures of recidivism were highlighted as a key priority as they can assist with:

  • the development of programs that reduce crime and enhance community safety;
  • evaluating the performance of the criminal justice system, for sub-populations and as a whole; and
  • reducing recidivism (ABS 2005).

Recent audits of both the NSW and Victorian juvenile justice departments have also identified improved data collection on recidivism as key priorities (NSW Auditor-General 2005; Victorian Auditor-General 2008).

A range of benefits of performance measurement has been identified. Performance measures can:

  • assist agencies to identify problems as they arise and allow for action to be taken to address problems;
  • assist agencies to identify whether policies are likely to be effective;
  • inform evaluation strategies (Mears & Butts 2008);
  • enable progress towards achieving goals to be tracked;
  • enable the prioritisation of new stakeholders (eg crime victims);
  • enable resources to be targeted towards achieving objectives; and
  • strengthen practice (Harp et al. 2006).

Reporting on performance measures has a range of benefits, including:

  • demonstrating that an agency is operating effectively and that changes have been properly implemented (Mears & Butts 2008);
  • increasing public confidence in the system;
  • promoting effective service delivery and accountability; and
  • assisting policymaking and related processes (Harp et al. 2006).

Bazemore (cited in Thomas 2006) argues that there are three primary reasons for measuring performance in the juvenile justice sector:

  • juvenile justice services are publicly funded and carried out for the public good. The public should be able to access information about publicly funded services;
  • measuring performance assists organisations to operate effectively, to establish priorities, direct practice and prioritise resources; and
  • measuring performance provides empirical support for the theoretical frameworks that underpin juvenile justice services and programs.

What makes good performance measures?

Characteristics of good performance measures include:

  • they are widely accepted and meaningful;
  • they clearly and empirically demonstrate that goals and objectives are being met;
  • they are valid and reliable;
  • they are easily understood and unambiguous;
  • they are collected, processed and reported in an economic and timely fashion; and
  • they are strength-based, not deficit-focused and supportive of continuous improvement (Harp et al. 2006).

As Mears and Butts (2008: 281) argue

the benefits of performance monitoring substantially outweigh its costs, but as with any tool, its impact will be greatest when it is wielded with care and precision.