Feasibility of a Survey Panel of Criminal Justice Agencies

For Small, Rural, Tribal, and Border Law Enforcement, Courts, and Institutional and Community Corrections Agencies

by Jessica Saunders, Meagan Cahill, Jirka Taylor

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Research Questions

  1. What technology is being used by SRTB criminal justice agencies?
  2. How can we build a panel survey of SRTB criminal justice agencies?
  3. What are the challenges to building a representative panel of SRTB criminal justice system agency actors?

Given the potential for technology to improve the work and outcomes of small, rural, tribal, and border (SRTB) criminal justice agencies, the collection of information on how technology is currently used in the field would enable a better understanding of how best to provide support to these agencies. This report describes a feasibility study conducted by the Justice Innovation Center (JIC) to establish a survey panel of SRTB criminal justice agency representatives. The JIC survey panel would send out a short questionnaire each month to representatives to collect rapid feedback about what technology is being used in the field, how and why it was selected, the challenges and barriers departments face when using it, and where it is viewed as effective.

Such a panel would enable researchers and policymakers to rapidly solicit practitioners' views on various topics of interest and thus collect up-to-date information on priorities and challenges in the field.

To determine whether this idea is feasible, the JIC conducted several tasks across multiple phases. First, we used a convenience sample of agencies that we had interviewed for a previous assessment of SRTB technology needs to conduct a few months of surveys. Next, we developed and tested an online platform to collect and analyze data. Finally, we conducted an experiment to compare different recruitment methods to inform our future panel enrollment efforts. This report summarizes each of these research activities and provides an assessment of future directions for a survey panel.

Key Findings

  • The response rates achieved in our three pilot email surveys of SRTB criminal justice agencies were broadly comparable to those observed in other email-based surveys. They were somewhat lower than response rates reported by high-profile panel surveys of individuals and households (such as the RAND American Life Panel) and somewhat lower than some panel surveys of professionals and organizations (such as the RAND Educator Panels).
  • The deployment of a web-based survey demonstrated that it was possible to use a technological solution that could automate numerous tasks and improve privacy arrangements without any concomitant losses in respondent engagement.
  • The test of three methods to recruit panel participants yielded very poor results. The most successful method, email, resulted in a response rate of 7 percent, with even lower rates achieved via mail and phone. These low values capture only the percentage of respondents who agreed to join the panel, without any guarantee that they would respond to any subsequent panel surveys. To address these challenges, appropriate incentives for respondents may merit exploration.
  • Recruitment activities for any future SRTB panel must either pursue a probability sampling strategy or not. The option of probability sampling is hampered by the fact that there are currently no readily available sampling frames for small, rural, and border courts and community corrections agencies.

Recommendations

  • Developing a panel of just one agency type may be desirable for two reasons: (1) to prove its utility to other agency types, thereby improving the likelihood that others will enroll; and (2) to concentrate efforts so that we can develop a valid real sampling frame and focus our resources. SRTB agencies are hard-to-reach groups, so focusing on a subset of the population will enable us to concentrate resources for recruitment on fewer potential respondents.
  • We recommend starting with law enforcement or institutional corrections for two reasons: (1) there are already sampling frames of law enforcement agencies and jails to work from; and (2) surveys and censuses from these agencies are resource-intensive and infrequent, and it takes years for results to be released. Current issues in both local law enforcement and jails are in the forefront of the national news, but there are few opportunities to get information from a population-level sample with any sort of timely turnaround. Quick access to a representative panel from these agencies would be very useful in understanding how to most effectively support them.
  • For a panel survey of this type to have maximum impact, it might be worthwhile to expand the scope of the survey to include all sizes of the different agency types for contrast. Currently, the majority of research is conducted in either large or medium-sized agencies, so having them in the survey for comparison with the small agencies would be very beneficial to put research results in perspective. This avenue could have wider applications beyond the SRTB audiences.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Defining Our Target Population

  • Chapter Three

    Email Survey of a Convenience Sample

  • Chapter Four

    Web-Based Survey of a Convenience Sample

  • Chapter Five

    Test of Varied Recruitment Methods

  • Chapter Six

    Future Directions

  • Appendix A

    Strategies Used to Improve Response Rates in National Panel Surveys

  • Appendix B

    Results from the Email and Web-Based Surveys

The research described in this report was funded by the National Institute of Justice and conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

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