Evidence-Based Practices

Wherever you look, you see best practices. Sounds like a bit of wisdom from Yogi Berra, doesn’t it?

We have best practices for appellate courts and for problem solving courts, for racial fairness, for reducing family violence, for collection of traffic fines, for electronic document digital discovery, for human resource management, for ensuring public trust and confidence and, seemingly, for everything in court policy and operations under the sun. To put it bluntly, even though I’m guilty of using it in the past, I’m tired of best practices and would like to replace the concept with evidence-based best practices or simply evidence-based practices. Here’s why.

While I’m sure that serious policymakers associate the concept of best practices with empirical evidence to back up the word “best” – the National Center for State Courts, for example, provides information on proven best practices – but that’s not the way the concept is used and generally understood. Instead, best practices seem to be things that courts do that they are proud of, that experts want them to do, that have gotten some good press, or practices that have attracted the attention of a critical mass of court managers. I would call these things “interesting practices,” “intriguing practices,” “promising practices” and, maybe, “practices-you-might- want-to-see-in-person-if-the-weather-is-right.” There’s nothing wrong with these things, but they are rarely based on valid and reliable evidence that they work. And there are so many best practices claimed by so many people, probably because the criteria for introducing them are low and vague. “He that is everywhere is nowhere,” said Thomas Fuller, the 15th century English preacher and historian, who had the wit of Yogi Berra.

There is a better way to get to what works: performance measurement. Among the ten top reasons for court performance measurement is that it helps identify evidence-based practices. Effective performance measures help clarify and focus goals and objectives and aid in the formulation of strategies to achieve them. For example, a performance measure of the certainty of trial dates may unequivocally show that a court is not providing firm and credible trial dates. National research shows that a court's ability to set firm trial dates is associated with shorter times to disposition of cases. The results of the performance measure may point to the practices that ensure firm and credible trial dates: (1) disposition of as many cases as possible before the setting of trial dates for those cases; (2) realistic calendar practices; (3) limiting continuances; and (4) a provision for "back-up" judges. An upward trend in the certainty of trial dates associated with the introduction of any one such example of calendar discipline would identify an evidence-based practice.

Another example of a way to identify evidence-based practices is to compare the measure of access and fairness across different court locations. For instance, the percent of users who felt that they were treated with courtesy and respect might be higher in some locations. Systematic follow-up queries can then be made that probe the high-scoring and low-scoring locations. Why do one or more locations seem to be more successful than others? What are they doing that the other locations are not? Asking staff in both the most successful and least successful locations these simple questions in terms of “do’s and don’ts” can help establish evidence-based practices for increasing court users’ perception of courtesy and respect paid to them by the court.

Here’s a suggested definition: Evidence based practices are programs, strategies or procedures for which there is demonstrable evidence that their use produces desirable performance outputs and outcomes. More generally, evidence based court improvement practice is a systematic process for using performance measurement results – as well as that of research and program evaluation – for court improvement.

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