Few states and counties know what return on investment they are getting for expenditures on their criminal and juvenile justice systems. Agencies spend money and make assumptions about the financial and substantive effects of policy and program choices without much solid information on the real costs incurred or benefits accrued. Yet this information is highly relevant to the decisions policymakers need to make, particularly in a challenging fiscal climate.

Vera’s Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit provides policymakers with clear, accessible information on the economic pros and cons associated with criminal and juvenile justice investments, so that they can identify effective, affordable interventions for their jurisdictions and allocate resources accordingly. We perform cost-benefit analyses and other cost-related studies, support jurisdictions conducting their own studies, and carry out research to advance the knowledge and application of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in the justice system. We also provide technical assistance to help jurisdictions integrate CBA and other types of economic analysis in their justice planning and policymaking. 

The Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit draws upon the experience of an advisory board of national experts and practitioners in criminal justice and economics.

For more information on the Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit, please contact Chris Henrichson, unit director.


A Natural Experiment in Reform: Analyzing drug policy change in New York

The Substance Use and Mental Health Program (SUMH) studied the impact of 2009 reforms to New York State's Rockefeller Drug Laws that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug charges and expanded eligibility for diversion to treatment. Researchers compared cases pre and post reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, racial disparities in sentencing, recidivism, and cost.

A New Role for Technology: The Impact of Video Visitation on Corrections Staff, Inmates, and their Families

This study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, will explore whether providing incarcerated people with access to video visitation improves the nature and frequency of prisoners’ contact with their families and other people who support them. It will also explore if these contacts improve their compliance with custodial rules and outcomes after their release from prison.

Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Center for Employment Opportunities

Vera's Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit worked with MDRC to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the Center for Employment Opportunities, an independent program launched by the Vera Institute that provides employment services to people with criminal records.

Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank for Criminal Justice

Vera's Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit has developed a national knowledge bank for cost-benefit analysis in criminal justice to help practitioners and policymakers better understand the budgetary impact of criminal justice policy choices.

Impact Evaluation of the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience Program at Rikers Island

In 2012, the City of New York launched the nation’s first social impact bond—an innovative form of pay-for-success contracting that leverages private funding to finance public services—to fund the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE) program, a large-scale initiative serving 16- to 18- year old youth detained in New York City’s Rikers Island jail.

Incarceration's Front Door: Reducing the Overuse of Jails

Local jails exist in nearly every town and city in America. While rarely on the radar of most Americans, they are the front door to the formal criminal justice system in a country that holds more people in custody than any other on the planet. Their impact is both far-reaching and profound: in the course of a typical year, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions—almost 20 times the number of annual admissions to state and federal prisons—at great cost to the people involved, their families and communities, and society at large. Through research, publications, and technical assistance to local jurisdictions, Vera aims to foster public debate and policy reform to reduce jail incarceration, repair the damage it causes, and promote safe, healthy communities.

The Price of Prisons

Vera’s Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit and Center on Sentencing and Corrections, in collaboration with the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States, have developed a methodology to guide a complete accounting of the cost of prisons.

The Role of Indigent Defense for Defendants with Mental Health Disorders

Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program launched a project to study the role of indigent defense, commonly known as public defense, for defendants with mental health disorders (MHD) in January 2013. With support from the National Institute of Justice, this work aims to 1) enhance understanding of the challenges faced by indigent defenders and their clients with MHD; 2) improve outcomes for defendants with MHD; and 3) inform the development of guidelines and training materials for defense attorneys that address common challenges to providing indigent defense for people with MHD. 

Incarceration's Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America
*/ Local jails, which exist in nearly every town and city in America, are built to hold people deemed too dangerous to release pending trial or at high risk of flight. This, however, is no longer primarily what jails do or whom they hold, as people too poor to post bail languish there and racial...
Cost-Benefit Analysis and Justice Policy Toolkit
Throughout the justice field, demand is growing for cost-benefit analysis (CBA), an economic tool that compares the costs of programs or policies with the benefits they produce. Although there is no one-size-fits-all template for conducting a CBA, analysts and researchers must follow a common...
Cost-Benefit Analysis and Public Safety Technology: A Roundtable Discussion
Vera’s Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit convened a working group of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers with expertise in law enforcement and public safety technologies to discuss how public safety agencies use cost-benefit analysis (CBA) as a tool to inform budgetary decisions about the use of...
Using Cost-Benefit Analysis for Justice Policymaking
The Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank for Criminal Justice (CBKB), a project of Vera’s Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit, convened a working group of researchers and policymakers to help advance the use of rigorous cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in decisions about criminal justice programs and policies. Input from...
Putting a Value on Crime Analysts: Considerations for Law Enforcement Executives
Like other government agencies, police departments are under great pressure to get the biggest return possible when investing taxpayers’ dollars in justice programs and policies. The Law Enforcement Forecasting Group of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance asked Vera to...
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It may come as a surprise to learn that 90 percent of jails collect revenue from the people incarcerated there. To learn more about this practice, we at Vera reviewed data submitted by 35 jurisdictions as part of our Price of Jails survey. We found...
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Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo released his budget for the coming fiscal year, including in it reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system that would remove most 16 and 17-year-olds from the adult criminal justice system without...
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Nationwide, state correctional health care spending totaled $7.7 billion in 2011—an amount that comprises 20 percent of overall prison expenditures, according to a new report from the State Health Care Spending Project, an initiative of The Pew...
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A few years ago, a colleague asked me a pointed question about cost-benefit analysis: "Is it useful or a bunch of baloney?" (Actually, her words were a bit saltier.) We had worked together at the New York City Office of Management and Budget—and...
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A longer version of this interview originally appeared on the blog of the Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank for Criminal Justice (CBKB), a Vera project. Dr. Craig D. Uchida is the president of Justice & Security Strategies, Inc., and is a former...
Christian Henrichson
Research Director, Center on Sentencing and Corrections
Chris Mai
Policy Analyst, Center on Sentencing and Corrections
Steve Aos photo Steve Aos
Steve Aos is the director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the nonpartisan research arm of the Washington State legislature. He has more than 35 years of experience in conducting cost-benefit analyses and in communicating the results to policymakers in a wide range of public policy areas, as well as in the private sector. His current work focuses on identifying and evaluating the costs and benefits of programs and policies that reduce crime, improve K-12 educational outcomes, reduce child abuse and neglect, improve mental health, and reduce substance abuse and tobacco use. He also has many years of experience in energy economics and regulatory policy.
Mark Bergstrom photo Mark H. Bergstrom
Mark H. Bergstrom has been the executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing since 1998. In addition to providing the overall management of the Commission, he also serves as the commission’s liaison with the General Assembly, the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, the Governor’s Office, other state and local agencies, and with the various administrative units of The Pennsylvania State University, where the Commission is based. In his prior positions with the Commission, he was responsible for incorporating intermediate punishments into the sentencing guidelines, conducting training seminars on sentencing-related issues, and assisting counties with the development and implementation of intermediate punishment plans and programs.
Mark A. Cohen photo Mark A. Cohen
Mark A. Cohen is professor of management and law at Vanderbilt University. Previously, he served as a staff economist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Sentencing Commission and as vice president for research at Resources for the Future. He is often called upon by government and research organizations to serve in advisory roles providing his expertise on the economics of crime and the cost of crime to society. He served for two terms as chairman of the American Statistical Association’s Committee on Law and Justice. He has received several research grants from the National Institute of Justice to assess the costs and impact of crime on society. He has lectured around the world on the cost of crime, including consultations and invited talks with governmental organizations in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Netherlands, Poland, Finland, and elsewhere in the EU.
Philip J. Cook photo

Philip J. Cook
Philip J. Cook is the senior associate dean for faculty of the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University. He has served in a variety of capacities with the National Academy of Sciences, including membership on expert panels dealing with alcohol-abuse prevention, violence, school shootings and underage drinking. He is the author of Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control, (Princeton University Press, 2007) and the coauthor of Gun Violence: The Real Costs (Oxford University Press, 2000), which uses economic theory to develop and apply a framework for assessing costs. Among his current projects is an evaluation of a randomized field trial for reducing recidivism among released prisoners in Milwaukee.

Dall Forsythe photo

Dall Forsythe
Dall Forsythe is a senior fellow at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University and a member of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. Dr. Forsythe served as budget director for the State of New York and chief budget officer for the New York City public schools. He was also a managing director in Lehman Brothers’ public finance department, chief administrative officer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and chief financial officer of the Atlantic Philanthropies. Dr. Forsythe has held faculty positions at Columbia University; the Kennedy School at Harvard; the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College (CUNY); and SUNY’s University of Albany. He was a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, and is the author of Memos to the Governor: An Introduction to State Budgeting. He received a bachelor's degree and a PhD from Columbia University. 

Michael Jacobson
Michael Jacobson is the director of the Institute of State and Local Governance at the City University of New York, where he is also a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center. Michael was director of the Vera Institute of Justice from 2005 until May 2013, and was previously commissioner of corrections and of probation in New York City and a deputy budget director for the city.


Jens Ludwig
Jens Ludwig is director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy at the University of Chicago, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Faculty Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and co-director of the NBER’s working group on the Economics of Crime. He conducts empirical research in law and economics and social policy, with a focus on urban poverty, education, crime, and housing. He is the co-author with Duke University professor Philip J. Cook of Gun Violence: The Real Costs (Oxford University Press 2000) and co-editor with Cook of Evaluating Gun Policy (Brookings Institution Press 2003). Before coming to the University of Chicago, he was a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. In 2006, he received the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management’s David N. Kershaw Prize for distinguished contributions to public policy by the age of 40.