What is Evidence-Based Sentencing?

The NCSC was one of the first organizations to use the term “evidence-based sentencing” (EBS). EBS refers to a set of sentencing practices designed to promote public safety through risk reduction and management of probation-eligible offenders.

By using EBS practices, the court strives to systematically:

  • identify probation-eligible offenders who may be safely and effectively supervised in the community given available community resources;
  • order appropriate conditions of community supervision given the offender’s individual recidivism risk, criminogenic needs, and responsivity factors (for an explanation of the Risk-Need-Responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation, see Bonta & Andrews, 2007); and
  • respond to any violations of community supervision in accordance with evidence-based community corrections practices.

To engage in EBS practices, a jurisdiction must also use evidence-based community corrections practices. Specifically, the community corrections agency must conduct validated offender risk, needs, and responsivity assessments of offenders (see 1. Assess in the graphic below) and provide information to the court about assessment results and about community corrections resources for managing and reducing offender recidivism risk (2. Inform). The court may then use this information to inform sentencing decisions about appropriate community supervision, treatment interventions, and services for the offender (3. Sentence), and community supervision and service providers can use the information to facilitate implementation of effective evidence-based supervision services (4. Supervise). If after placement in the community the offender violates the conditions of supervision, validated offender assessment information may be used to inform decisions about the appropriate evidence-based response – including therapeutic responses, sanctions, and if necessary, revocation (5. Respond to Violations).

To learn more about a specific component of this process, click on the corresponding section in the graphic below.



Key NCSC Resources

The following reports and publications provide more information about the general objectives of EBS and guidance for applying EBS principles to practice.


Use of Risk and Needs Assessment Information in State Sentencing Proceedings

National Center for State Courts (Sep 2017)

Description: This brief describes how offender risk and needs assessment information may be used by judges to inform sentencing decisions.


An Evidence-Based Approach to Promoting & Enforcing Compliance with Conditions of Probation Supervision

National Center for State Courts (Mar 2017)

Description: This brief describes how judges may use an evidence-based approach to promoting & enforcing offender compliance with conditions of probation supervision.


Using Risk and Needs Assessment Information at Sentencing: Observations from Ten Jurisdictions

J. Elek, R. Warren, & P. Casey (2015)

Description: This report explores how ten jurisdictions from across the country are using defendant risk and needs assessment (RNA) information at sentencing: Coconino Co., AZNapa Co., CAMesa Co., CO7th Judicial District, IDGrant Co., IN; Douglas Co., NECuyahoga Co., OHYamhill Co., ORTravis Co., TX; and La Crosse Co., WI.  The report captures themes in stakeholder perceptions of RNA information and its use at sentencing, experiences in adopting these sentencing reforms, and lessons learned from the implementation process. The report also offers examples of how the jurisdictions have implemented the nine guiding principles for using RNAs to inform sentencing and probation revocation decisions (for more about the nine guiding principles, see the 2011 report, below). 


Fact Sheet on Evidence-Based Sentencing

National Center for State Courts (2014)

Description: This fact sheet answers eight common questions about evidence-based sentencing. 


Offender Risk & Needs Assessment Instruments: A Primer for Courts

P. Casey, J. Elek, R. Warren, F. Cheesman, M. Kleiman, & B. Ostrom (2014)

Description: This Primer is a resource to help judges and others involved in sentencing understand and make knowledgeable decisions about the value and use of offender risk and needs assessment instruments. It provides information about the attributes of assessment instruments that may be used as a component of evidence-based sentencing and the practical considerations that court leaders face in selecting and properly using an RNA tool. The Primer also describes six commonly used RNA instruments.


State and Judicial Branch Leadership in Sentencing and Corrections Reforms

R. Warren (2013)

Description: Based on interviews with state court administrators and other court leaders in eleven states, this report focuses on judicial leadership in the development and implementation of evidence-based sentencing and corrections reforms.


Effective Responses to Offender Behavior: Lessons Learned for Probation and Parole Supervision

American Probation & Parole Association, National Center for State Courts, and the Pew Public Safety Performance Project (2013)

Description: This report describes the ways in which states and local jurisdictions can improve effective responses in probation and parole supervision. The report (a) provides an overview of the research and rationale supporting the use of swift and certain sanctions and other responses shown to be effective in community supervision; (b) highlights key lessons learned (informed by feedback from state court practitioners) regarding effective procedures and common performance measures in responses that involve both sanctions and incentives; and (c) practical implications about the use of the effective administrative response approach in community supervision.


Administrative Responses to Probation Violations: Due Process and Separation of Powers Issues

National Center for State Courts (2012)

Description: This memo discusses administrative responses to probation violations and implications for state policy and practice.


Using Risk and Needs Assessment Information at Sentencing: Guidance for Courts from a National Working Group

P. Casey, R. Warren, & J. Elek (2011)

Description: These nine Guiding Principles for using risk and needs assessment information at sentencing were endorsed in a resolution by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators.  The guide also includes profiles of several offender risk and needs assessment instruments available for use at the time of publication (Appendix A) and samples of state presentence investigation reports that contain offender risk and needs assessment information (Appendix B). 


See also: