The Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative in Iowa

The Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative in Iowa

Note: This page was updated in February 2018 to reflect new developments in the state.


In May 2011, Tom Ferguson, chair of the Iowa Public Safety Advisory Board, and fellow board members invited the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative to partner with them in establishing a cost-benefit model customized to examine policies and procedures in the state’s criminal justice system. The Legislature created the advisory board in 2011, and it is staffed by the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning (CJJP), within the Department of Human Rights. Its analyses and recommendations are submitted to the Legislature.


At the request of the board, the state Department of Corrections developed the Iowa Results First model for adult criminal justice programs and policies. Led by its former director of research, Lettie Prell, the department analyzed adult criminal justice programming within institutions, as well as community-based programs for high-risk probationers and individuals released from prison. The department also developed an inventory of prison-based interventions to take a comprehensive look at its programming and identify gaps in service, inefficiencies in program implementation, and other issue areas.


The department’s cost-benefit model showed that some programs for prisoners and probationers are better investments for Iowa than others. For example, drug treatment programs in prison and the community yield a little over $8 in benefits for every dollar invested. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a relatively inexpensive program to operate in Iowa and returns about $35 in benefits for every dollar invested. At the other end of the spectrum, department leaders found that the domestic violence perpetrator treatment programs were “a waste of taxpayer dollars” and estimated that the state lost about $3 for every dollar invested in them.

Through their comprehensive review of prison-based programs, department leaders learned that they were operating several similar but uncoordinated CBT programs and that they would benefit from streamlining these efforts. The department also discovered that some of their evidence-based programs, such as Thinking for a Change (a CBT program) and vocational education, were unable to serve all who were eligible and in need of such programs.

Policy impact

Based on its Results First analysis, the department has increased its investments in evidence-based programs effective in reducing recidivism, such as Thinking for a Change and vocational education. To improve the cost-effectiveness of its domestic violence perpetrator treatment program, the department partnered with the University of Iowa to pilot an alternative curriculum known as Achieving Change Through Value-Based Behavior. The program is being implemented in the community and phased into prisons.

The department has also streamlined its CBT programming to more effectively implement it and monitor for fidelity to program design. It is removing programs that have not been proved effective in reducing recidivism and not integral to offender re-entry. This reduction in the number of programs—and expansion of evidence-based, cost-effective options—will help the department achieve its ambitious goal of monitoring the fidelity of all core programming. To support this work, the staff has developed a new instrument, the IOWA (Improving Outcomes With Action) tool, to assess how well programs are implemented, with feedback offered on how programs can improve.

The department plans to perform annual reviews of its programs and conduct impact evaluations every five years to ensure that they are achieving the results that research suggests they will.

Next steps

The department plans to continue expanding evidence-based programming and developing more systematic, data-driven approaches. 

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