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Do You See What I See?

Here’s something that I have been struggling with for several years; I’ve mulled it over many, many times and have asked myself repeatedly, “What am I missing?” I’ve also thought, “It has to be me”…What I am referring to is what I see as a fixation on a narrow slice of evidence-based practice for correcting offender behavior. I’ll try to explain:

In reading the peer-reviewed and popular literature on changing offender behavior, reviewing criminal justice websites, participating in conferences and webinars, talking with researchers and practitioners, one might conclude that evidence-based corrections practices consists of 1. Assessing individual offender risks and needs using actuarial tools designed and tested for these purposes and 2. Providing cognitive behavioral treatment interventions to offenders assessed as mid to high risk, for the appropriate duration, dosage etc. with careful attention paid to fidelity in implementation.

I want to be clear in that I see both of these practices as being well-supported by multiple, rigorous studies; however, I think this is also true of other areas which, to date, have not garnered either the attention or focus I’ve come to believe they deserve.

Low levels of education and lack of vocational skills are criminogenic needs which are measured on widely used risk/need tools. There are also numerous assessments designed specifically for these domains. With respect to the rank order of needs most associated statistically with criminality, they are moderate needs, the same as being drug or alcohol addicted. Providing academic instruction and vocational training, when targeted to offenders with a high likelihood of committing more crimes and who have deficits in these areas, can improve outcomes significantly; there are multiple studies and meta-analyses conducted by highly regarded researchers (a study by RAND was released just this month), which show GREATER positive impacts for these interventions than for general cognitive behavioral treatment as well as specific CBT such as AOD programs with cog underpinnings.

How often have you heard that an offender assessed as medium or high risk who is both a high school drop-out and is drug addicted (an all too common combination) is targeted for educational instruction rather than AOD treatment or who gets more educational intervention than AOD? In my experience, it is very uncommon, particularly in institutional settings. I am often told by prison based educators that they feel like “second class citizens” as their offerings seem to take a back-seat to those provided by treatment staff.

There’s plenty of evidence, and the body continues to grow, about the power of “informal social controls,” and the reality that these hold far greater promise for contributing to individual success and community safety than any formal control such as standard supervision and electronic monitoring. While mentoring initiatives are becoming more mainstream and essential strategies, as opposed to ancillary or “nice to have” but not necessary pieces for reentry, my view is we still have a ways to go to get all the right tools in the box if we are to respond effectively to individual circumstances.

Then, there are studies which show, contrary to what is for some is a long-standing belief, that well-structured and executed deterrence strategies, alone, not coupled with formal cognitive behavioral treatment, can improve outcomes including recidivism, employment and remaining
drug free. It appears that there is some evidence that certain offenders under certain conditions can desist from their anti-social behavior without receiving cognitive behavioral treatment. But of course, there are so many more questions than answers….

I wonder if mid to high risk offenders with low-levels of education and few vocational skills, who are also drug-addicted, would do better on outcomes like employment, remaining sober and living law-abiding lives if they received education or AOD treatment? I think we all know that a balance would be best, but what we also know is that we can’t be all things to all people. In my experience, the default is always treatment first and maybe that is the better way to go generally, but I don’t think that we should just accept this approach without thinking it through and objectively studying the question (wouldn’t this make for a nice evaluation study using a random assignment design?). We know that for treatment or really any intervention to have a prayer of making a dent, due consideration needs to be given to dosage and duration; there is evidence that stopping too soon not only doesn’t improve outcomes but can make an individual more likely to fail. So, we can’t shortchange any intervention we commit to either.

We are painfully aware that aggregate recidivism rates for offenders released from state prisons across the country are high and relatively unchanged for decades. And while there is indeed compelling evidence from many methodologically rigorous studies and meta-analyses, that cog programs can and do work when designed, targeted and implemented well, we also know what many researchers point out. Results showing 20 or 30 percent reductions in recidivism are often based on pilot tests that have a much higher level of resource dedication, attention, monitoring etc. It is incredibly tough and in some cases not possible, to realize the same level of impact when a program is taken to scale.

The efficiency question is an important one too and like the results from effectiveness studies, strategies such as providing remedial academic instruction and GED preparation and providing hard skill training, CAN have a much greater bang for the buck (see, for example, multiple publications by Aos et. al on the Washington State Institute for Public Policy website) than treatment. Also consider that treatment impact tends to diminish over time. I’m not sure if this is true for education and voc. training in that once an offender has earned the diploma or GED or skill certificate, they always have it and can in fact build on these.

Moving forward, I am hopeful that we will renew our efforts to pay attention to all the evidence, even that which challenges long-held positions and beliefs which we hold dear, support and fund additional evaluation work outside of the treatment domain which holds promise for adding tools to our arsenal, and provide practitioners with additional training and resources to allow them to carry out their daily work as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Bottom line: Let’s keep an open mind, keep asking questions and challenge each other to find ways to do the most good for the greatest number.

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