The NCSL Blog


By Allison Hiltz

For state lawmakers looking to reduce waste and improve program outcomes, a growing number of states rely on rigorous analyses of program results to inform budget, policy and management decisions, also known as evidence-based policymaking.

State Legislatures illustration All 50 states and the District of Columbia incorporate this analysis into policymaking actions of at least one policy area, ranging from criminal justice to children’s and family services.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia, however, have formalized the process through either legislative or executive action. This mandate allows the development of a framework of laws to aid in implementation.

A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, “How Policymakers Prioritize Evidence-Based Programs Through Law,” highlights three states—Oregon, Tennessee and Washington—that have mandated the process through law, albeit with different challenges and paths to implementation. Although each state took a different approach, all learned the importance of engaging key stakeholders, creating a process for verifying compliance, monitoring program fidelity, and leveraging existing resources.

Oregon passed one of the first and most comprehensive evidence-based laws in the country in 2003. The legislation, S.B. 267, established funding targets for evidence-based programs in criminal and juvenile justice. The goal was 25 percent by 2007, 50 percent by 2009, and 75 percent by 2011, where it should remain. Although some providers were wary of the change, agencies relied on the legal framework to reinforce their work. They also created a methodical checklist to determine which programs were effective.

Tennessee lawmakers also set funding targets, which were codified in Tennessee Code Section 37-5-121. This developed a phased-in goal of 100 percent funding to evidence-based programs in juvenile justice. This was based on a three-tiered definition, which ranged from theory-based to evidence-based. Like many states, Tennessee faced implementation challenges resulting from capacity and technological constraints, as well as budget cuts in 2012. Today, they have overcome these initial speedbumps by partnering with researchers at Vanderbilt University, who help assess services provided are in line with what the research says is effective.

Washington began its journey toward legislating evidence-based programs in 1983, when it enacted one of the first laws in the nation to require direct funding toward cost-effective programs in juvenile courts. Since then, they have expanded their scope and expedited the process by passing H.B. 2536 in 2012.

The law required each state division to establish a baseline of existing programs, which included creating formal definitions of evidence, inventorying existing programs for evidence of effectiveness, and then mandating a specific percentage of funding to evidence-based programs.

Despite their different paths to requiring evidence-based programs by law, all three states faced similar challenges and gleaned similar insights. With competing budget priorities, investing in the personnel and technology to run such analyses can be costly and time-consuming.

They also learned how important it is to establish a process early on, so that both providers and agencies know what to expect. For other states looking to mandate evidence-based programs through law, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington may provide the roadmap.

Read a State Legislatures magazine story, “Facts Before Funding.”

Allison Hiltz is a policy associate in the Employment, Labor and Retirement program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.