Evidence-Based Practices in Corrections: From On-Paper to the Front-Line
Kristi L. Greenberg, University of New Haven
Evidence-based practices are accepted as the gold standard within criminal justice agencies. In some instances, what works on paper is carried out effectively in the field, whereas in others, barriers are met by the realities of the front line. In corrections, there are eight accepted principles believed to reduce recidivism of offenders: the use of risk assessments, the need to enhance motivation, targeting interventions, matching offender traits with interventions, use of cognitive behavioral therapy, strengthening pro-social influences, adhering to program principles, and the use of data to guide actions (NCSC, 2018). These principles and the challenges perceived to their implementation are discussed below, from the point of view of a practitioner working in an institutional correctional setting.
Use of Risk Assessments
Contemporary research indicates that actuarial risk assessments provide better results than clinical judgment alone (Andrews & Dowden, 2007). Removing individual bias and opinion leads to results that are more consistent and ideally to a greater predictability of future criminal offending. Of the various assessment tools that are available, most have similar predictive accuracies, in part because of a consensus about the core risk and needs factors that best predict future offending (Andrews & Dowden, 2007; Brennan, Dieterich, & Ehret, 2009). Of these, there are four that are the most valuable: antisocial attitudes, antisocial associates, antisocial personality pattern, and a history of antisocial behavior. Other risk factors observed are family and marital elements, school and work, use of leisure time, and substance abuse issues.
When thinking about offenders and the difficulties they face, it becomes clear that addressing these many needs is a challenge, even for those who actively want to change. In New York, the COMPAS is the chosen risk assessment for local and state agencies. Brennan and colleagues (2009), when assessing the COMPAS’ predictive abilities, determined that for their subject group (consisting only of probationers), the assessment was able to reach a predictive ability at least equal to other similar assessment tools. Knowing the assessment holds value is the first step; however, utilizing it within a prison setting is something that has been studied less often.
Assessments are given upon an inmates’ arrival into the state prison system and are completed at the time of release to parole supervision. The initial assessment should match an inmate with programming that will increase their chances of rehabilitation during their term of incarceration; however, this often falls short in practice. Remembering the key risk and need factors, it is clear that antisocial associates will not be avoided in prison. In addition, when looking to specific program offerings, the assessment may indicate an offender will benefit from something like vocational programming (as an example). The offender may be placed on a wait list for an opening in a program, which may not be of interest to the offender. Ultimately, in some instances, he or she may only be going through the motions to show up to the program, for fear of losing a conditional release date if they were to refuse.
The staff who administer the assessment can also be cause for concern. There are varying degrees of training offered on how to use and explain the assessments, often with existing line staff teaching inexperienced staff members. This can create instances of poor implementation habits or incorrect information being provided, simply because no one was ever told the correct information or trained properly. Staff also can override assessments, such as in cases involving special populations. This re-opens the door for individual biases to enter. As Byrne and Pattavina (2006) noted, a suggested benchmark is to monitor if an agency is changing more than 10% of its scores. If so, a closer look into why that is occurring is recommended.
Broadly speaking, the COMPAS does what it sets out to do. It can identify what an offender needs to reduce their chances of recidivism and better their lives. Such factors as programming availability, offender motivation, and jail code can, however, inhibit the likelihood of implementation success.
Enhancing Intrinsic Motivation
Identifying treatment needs is an important foundational step of any risk reduction plan, but once completed, offenders need to be motivated to participate and change. Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a widely used practice across many treatment platforms and suits itself well to incarcerated offenders. MI is an evidence-based practice that involves engaging, focusing, evoking, and planning to increase an offender’s intrinsic motivation and their commitment to changing themselves (Iarussi, Vest, Booker, & Powers, 2016). Those trained in MI help offenders by asking questions and guiding offenders toward change. It is a skill that must be taught, as it relies on the counselor’s ability to know when an offender is ready to make changes and recognize how committed an offender is to those changes.
Having been trained in MI and also having the ability to use the skill within the prison setting provides a unique perspective on the practice. The breakdown among offenders, in terms of who is just doing their time with the intent of returning to their previous life and activities, to those who are teetering between a criminal past and a desire to change, all the way to those who are working diligently to avoid trouble and change their lives, presents various levels of motivation.
The problem lies within high caseload numbers and limited interactions with individual offenders, in order to conduct any type of meaningful interview. Within the COMPAS software are case plans in which offenders set goals in line with the aforementioned risk and needs. These case plans typically are reviewed quarterly. Within these meetings, an offender sets goals with their counselor and subsequently enters programs in accordance with these goals. For example, if not currently in the substance abuse program due to a wait list, an offender may opt to participate in NA/AA meetings. Those offenders who are already motivated or can be steered in the direction of participation are more likely to think about the goals and act on them. Those who do not care for what is offered will often say what they think the parole board will want to hear, and not think about the goals until their next meeting in three months.
The front-line difficulty of MI in an environment that is pressed for time is real. Time constraints need to be alleviated, to enable counselors to spend time with offenders who can, through MI, be put on a path toward change. Furthermore, more time can be spent trying to reach those who have yet to realize change is possible for them.
There generally is much time and thought put into each offenders’ programming needs, but targeting interventions to ensure they are working toward moving an offender out of a life of crime is equally as important. Prison culture is an incredible barrier to this process. When thinking about moving an offender away from antisocial peers and activities, prison is the complete opposite approach, as it is currently designed. Shared spaces, activities, and living environments prevent the acquisition of prosocial peers (Wooditch, Tang, & Taxman, 2013). Some groups in prison are formed by those who are working to change; however, often times these groups become infiltrated by those who wish to use the meeting space for more perilous activities, such as gang meetings or drug sales. Keeping one’s head down and away from criminal acts, even behind the walls, is incredibly difficult.
Barriers also exist in idle time. As far as treatment programming has come, the realities are that offenders cannot be programmed 24 hours a day (Batchelder & Pippert, 2002). Immersing an offender in an environment to foster change would require a change in the culture they are experiencing. Targeted interventions only occur for a few hours per day, which is necessary due to other daily activities, but it also opens the door for poor habits to resume. Idle time leads to many problems in prisons. On a large scale, riots have occurred, and in smaller instances, there are drug deals and fights over relatively meaningless things. Determining the right balance of program time and idle time betters the chances change will occur.
Matching Offender Traits
Offender traits and needs vary by individual; they are human after all and unique in their own way. As a result, it is important to match specific offender traits to appropriate interventions. A portion of offenders go through required prison programming just to go through the motions. They are told to comply, so they sit in class to get a chance to go home, and in many cases, repeat the whole cycle. It does not have to be that pessimistic, however. By focusing more on what each offender needs, based on their risk assessments, there could be greater interest and motivation to meaningfully participate, and in turn affect change (Andrews Bonta, & Wormith, 2006).
It is not a cliché that many offenders list their desired occupation as being a singer or record producer. These are common goals, albeit far from the only ones. The lesson here is that within an offender’s criminogenic needs, there could be more program offerings that satisfy interests they already possess. Music classes coupled with goal planning and realistic plans to enter the music industry cannot only tie this goal with reality, but could generate better decision-making skills, less impulsivity, long-term planning, and education.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a method for helping offenders gain an understanding of how they perceive situations, react to them, and ideally create new and more positive responses to those situations (Taxman, 2018). CBT is undoubtedly one of the most widely used evidence-based practices, because it has been shown to work. However, knowing it works is only the beginning. Implementing a practice that produces results is not always the reality (Taxman, 2018).
A program commonly offered that falls under the CBT umbrella is Thinking for a Change, sometimes referred to as TFAC or T4C. This program is a group-based CBT approach that teaches social skills, cognitive self-change, and problem-solving strategies (Lowenkamp, Hubbard, Makarios, & Latessa, 2009). Offenders learn how to address everything from greeting people and asking a question appropriately to avoiding physical confrontations.
Overall, CBT has been found to be effective. Landerberger and Lipsey (2005) concluded that recidivism was reduced by 25% for those who participated in CBT programming. Lowenkamp and colleagues (2009) assessed the use of T4C in a probation department, rather than in prison, and purported that there was a noted reduction in recidivism and that correctional line staff can deliver the program effectively. These findings are important to consider within prisons, as existing correctional staff often are trained and are required to facilitate T4C, rather than bringing in outside clinical staff.
Utilizing existing staff for CBT programs is cost-effective, but is it outcome effective? This is where the real issue lies in the implementation of the programs. Staff may be hired under a job title and then given added work, on top of already high caseloads. Facilitating CBT groups therefore can take them away from their other job duties. Resistance to conducting these groups with any type of focused effort becomes the reality. Offenders may actually want to learn the methods the curriculum has to offer, but the staff tasked with teaching it may have no desire to be there. Some staff members may enjoy teaching group sessions, whereas others dread the task. In sum, the motivation and interest level of staff members can greatly impact what is being taught and how.
Strengthening Pro-Social Influences
As previously mentioned, pro-social influences are difficult to find behind the prison walls. Visitation, correspondence, and other communication-related programs are essential to maintaining family ties and increasing the pro-social support for an offender. There are reentry task forces available for assisting offenders with transitioning back to the community; these efforts seek to ground an offender in positive activities that will stabilize their lives. Often though, even with assistance, the people, places, or things individuals used to be in contact with do not change. Being required to return to the same area in which they resided prior to their incarceration quite literally puts offenders back into the negative situations they came from. Moreover, gangs have far-reaching resources, which make it difficult for those who want to leave that life to do so, particularly if they return to the same neighborhood in which they joined a gang. Becoming involved in positive activities and being surrounded by positive people is important, but almost seemingly impossible for many, given the legal constraints placed on parolees (Kirk, 2016).
Fidelity to Program Principles
Touched upon previously when discussing CBT, having staff that adhere to program principles and guidelines is essential for a program to be effective. Motivational interviewing techniques along with CBT program curriculums are only as effective as those administering them. Without consistent and research-supported techniques, a program can morph into another version, which may or may not be within the proven methods for producing an intended effect on participants.
There are many reasons why, even with proper training, staff do not follow a program model. It is heard constantly within facilities, and appropriately so, that the first and foremost goal of any facility is to operate safely and securely. Consequently, evidence-based practices may be pushed aside in favor of security. This is not to say the programs will not operate, because keeping offenders busy in a program creates safer environments, but the evidence-based programs might not be implemented with fidelity (Rudes, Lerch, & Taxman, 2011).
Furthermore, staff themselves are juggling many tasks and may not have time to complete a program lesson, or they may provide abbreviated versions just to fit them into their schedules. Staff also face a mix of personalities. Thus far, discussion has focused on those offenders who want to engage in change, but a related challenge is for staff to deal with the often aggressive, violent, and defiant offenders who do not want to participate. Staff often hear such statements as “why do I have to be here?” “I want to refuse,” “this won’t help me,” or “this is stupid.” These attitudes inhibit those who want to make changes from gaining the information and guidance needed to do so.
General staff burnout also plays a role in the fidelity of a program. Staff shortages, emotional strain, harassment, and other unfortunate realities of working within a prison take their toll on staff, who in turn, may need more support from their agency to have the time and motivation to carry out the program effectively (Lambert, Hogan, Griffin, & Kelley, 2015).
Using Data as a Guide
Each of the previous principles outlines ways to identify needs and effect change. The method for determining if change has actually occurred is through the use of data. Program evaluations, recidivism studies, and other forms of research all necessary to measure what is actually working, and if it is not working, identify why. More work needs to be done in terms of program evaluation research within correctional institutions, including obtaining qualitative data from the offenders themselves, rather than just producing formal measures of recidivism (Miller, Tillyer, & Miller, 2012).
Of the existing research, few studies evaluate CBT programs being utilized within prisons, versus with probation and parole populations. Correctional staff stressors and environments are different, along with motivations to change. The programming itself needs to be effective for the population it is targeting, and systematic program evaluations are the way to make determinations of success or failure.
Identifying what offenders think would help them is another avenue for future study (Miller et al., 2012). Realistic, cost-effective options may exist within the correctional environment. Perhaps having dedicated staff who want to be involved in these programs would increase success, while allowing offender facilitators in more programs might enhance delivery. These on-going and evolving questions should be addressed if, as a field, it is believed these are available best practices to reduce offending.
The eight principles of evidence-based practices in corrections undoubtedly provide a solid framework to reduce recidivism. However, there are many great ideas in theory that fail to translate to the front lines. It is not to say nothing works as intended. There are clear examples of how these practices work, but it should not be a closed conversation once a program is implemented. Staff members running programs day-to-day have invaluable information as to what is working and what is not. Successes, struggles, and suggestions all can be provided by staff and offenders alike, to reduce an offender’s likelihood of committing new crimes, which in turn affects victimization.
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