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Short History of Randomized Experiments in Criminology: A Meager Feast

NCJ Number
Evaluation Review Volume: 27 Issue: 3 Dated: June 2003 Pages: 218-227
Date Published
June 2003
10 pages

Focusing on cycles in the use of randomized experiments by the California Youth Authority (CYA), the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and the British Home Office, this article discusses the advantages of randomized experiments as well as key issues addressed in other articles of this journal.


The main advantage of a randomized experiment is its equating of persons in the intervention group with persons in the control group, who do not experience the intervention. They are matched on all variables deemed to influence the key outcomes, with the exception of the intervention variables. A randomized experiment can establish the effect of an intervention more convincingly than alternative quasi-experimental evaluation methods that involve matched intervention and control groups, the comparison of predicted and actual outcomes in each group, or statistical adjustment for pre-existing differences between groups. In spite of their advantages, however, randomized experiments in criminology and criminal justice are relatively rare. The uses of randomized experiments are "oases" in a "desert" of nonrandomized research. The articles in this special journal issue describe some of these oases under the sponsorship of the CYA from 1960 through 1975, NIJ from 1981 through 1988, and the British Home Office from 1964 through 1972. These articles show how the "feast and famine" period for randomized experiments in criminology and criminal justice were influenced by key individuals. This dependence on individual leadership is unfortunate. There should be a shared consensus among scholars, policymakers, practitioners, and funders that high-quality research is essential. This can happen through better education and training regarding best practices in evaluation research, which is the foundation of cost-effectiveness in criminal justice policy and practice. 41 references

Date Published: June 1, 2003