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Reflections from Walking the Bridge: What I’ve Learned from Two Decades in Research and Implementation

Like so many of us working in the criminal justice arena, I stumbled into the field, never having intended to be in this line of work at all, and then thinking that I might stay and explore it a bit, learn what I could, and move on.  That was 18 years ago.  I realized quickly that the more I learned, the more convinced I was that I knew very little indeed.

What has kept me engaged and passionate about the work we do is, in part, the tremendous challenges that we are presented with and my view that the work really matters to individuals and to communities.  The world is filled with “problems,” but some are just more important to tackle than others!  So the continuing-to-learn part matters a great deal to me and not only from the perspective of enjoying it as an intellectual pursuit, but from the perspective that the knowledge gained might be used to help make individual lives better.

I have been very fortunate to work with many talented, dynamic and committed professionals from many disciplines and organizations.  And while I think there are many notable achievements born from collaboration in the last decade or so, nowhere do I see those more prominently than in the blurring of the lines between academics and practitioners engaged in working towards safer and healthier communities, fewer victims of crime and better opportunities and outcomes for individuals.

At the time I assumed the position as the Director of Planning, Research, Statistics and Grants with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in 1998, I think the bridge between the academic and practitioner worlds was a bit narrow and perhaps unstable.   I do not believe this is the case any longer.  We now work together under the umbrella of translational criminology, see more resources dedicated to applied work and have academics “embedded” in criminal justice organizations. There are any number of productive, balanced, and in some cases, long-standing partnerships, between practitioners and academics, which have propelled our field forward in knowledge acquisition. We have elevated our work to that of a profession by undertaking methodologically rigorous studies on important questions and, more importantly, on applying the findings from these studies in settings which provide direct services to justice-involved individuals.  This very focused partnership work is again geared towards the critical government objectives of safeguarding all citizens and providing opportunities for productive and law-abiding living.

There are reasons to be optimistic
We know more about what works with whom and under what circumstances, and this knowledge is more often translated into practitioner-friendly publications and other resources, than was the case just a decade ago. And while the “failures” of the justice system are well-documented and publicized, we have had some wins in the last few years.  Crime rates for both property and violent crime continue to decline across the nation as does the number of individuals under correctional supervision, including those serving time in state prisons. Several states have devised and enacted strategies that have good, early results and are saving money and some states have even been able to close prisons.  These facts may give even the most ardent skeptic pause, to consider the possibility that we are on a promising path.

We need to know what we don’t know
Yet, our reality as a profession is that we have many more questions than we do answers and in so many cases, we are pursuing the answers to questions about fundamental elements of our justice-system; elements that many of us have regarded as essential, perhaps even sacred.  Take for example, our heavy reliance on community supervision for those convicted of breaking the law, as a way to enhance public safety.  There are about 4.2 million adults on probation in the United States, representing nearly 60 percent of those under correctional supervision.  While probation supervision has long been a staple of our system, we do not know whether the core component of community supervision, contacts between the probation officer and offender, has an impact on public safety since the question has not been tested empirically (Taxman 2010).  That being said, one thing that stands out for me is the criticality of continuing to ask the right questions, those for which the answers promise to make differences for what we choose to do and who we choose to target.  The right questions may come from many vantage points, the scholar, the practitioner, the successful former offender, family and community members affected by the policy and practice choices of professionals in  the justice system.  For me, this inclusive, collective, problem-solving approach holds tremendous promise for identifying specific core issues, devising scientifically-informed strategies and ultimately making progress towards a more just system.

However, it is likewise important to reflect on where we have been.  For practitioners and community partners who are continuously challenged to make the most impact in efficient ways, the reality that many big questions about how best to manage current offender populations as well as to prevent future offending, haven’t been addressed, is unsettling.  And for some, the not-knowing leads to a hesitancy to act, perhaps for fear of doing harm. Then there are those seasoned practitioners, among others, who have witnessed an approach or program or strategy heralded as revolutionary, take hold quickly and become the “only game in town,” only later to be labeled as “ill-conceived ” or  “ineffective.”  As a result, some may resort to echoing the “nothing works,” mantra which was a common response in the wake of Martinson’s now famous publication.

I empathize with those who have seen the pendulum shift multiple times, and who have tried each time to understand the underlying theories of that wave and how they might best act as agents of change.  Sometimes even the most nobly undertaken initiatives carried forth diligently do not lead us to where we want to be.  As difficult as that is to accept, I think these opportunities present possibilities for break-through thinking and innovation.

I will use my own experiences to try and illustrate this point.  I had the opportunity to serve as the Deputy Secretary for Specialized Programs and Reentry with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for several years.  The move from the research and evaluation side of the house to the application side, was an exhilarating change but also the biggest challenge of my career thus far.  I was eager to take on a greater role in translating science into practice in a large system with tens of thousands of offenders.  We were able to implement many fundamental, and in some cases, monumental changes, such as enhancing the department’s actuarial assessment system to better identify offender risks and needs, adopting multiple, cognitive behavioral treatment programs aimed at addressing key dynamic factors, increasing the number of therapeutic communities for drug addicted offenders, providing high quality training to staff running groups, and adopting a multi-level quality assurance system.  In addition, the Department partnered regularly with outside experts who provided an objective  evaluation of initiatives.

The overarching goals for the strategy under which these individual initiatives fell, was to improve outcomes for the offenders released from Pennsylvania prisons to communities.  However, the rearrest data that the Department was able to track did not show a decline in the rate of arrests of prison releases over the time we implemented these initiatives.  Instead, there was a slight uptick over a decade.  We do not have definitive answers as to why this is and what specific strategies worked and to what degree, but the fundamental concern was we didn’t see the desired change, in spite of paying attention to the research and to fidelity in implementing scientifically-informed strategies..  That reality was disheartening and left many people, including me, scratching our heads and wondering what went wrong and where we would go from there.

I learned a great deal from this experience which some might label a “failure.” (My view is that the only real failure is in not trying). In thinking through the experience over time a few general themes emerged:

We Must Sustain Our Commitment to Pursuing The “Greater Good”
This lesson is an affirmation that all of us have certain inalienable rights and that our duty to our fellow man is to ensure that each one of us is secure in these rights.

It is not an option to give up on finding ways to make communities safer or identifying strategies that will create greater opportunities for those disproportionately involved in the justice system, to lead healthier, more productive lives.

We Need To Precisely Identify Problems and Propose Solutions Informed by ALL Relevant Evidence

  • Our goals should be clear, specific, ambitious and reasonable.
  • There is no single solution to any of the myriad issues we face in the justice community; The solutions we propose must be informed by science, and must be judged to the extent that they are both effective and efficient.
  • Our future success is heavily dependent on asking the right questions and conducting rigorous studies to answer the questions.  Therefore, we must continue to support research and evaluation initiatives which will generate evidence.
  • It is critical that we pay attention to all of the evidence generated from methodologically rigorous studies and not only those which we find intuitively appealing.
  • Offenders are individuals and require approaches tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.  We must have the right tools in the proverbial toolbox and most especially know how to select the right tool for the job at-hand.

One of the biggest challenges for policymakers and practitioners alike is to remain balanced, and open to strategies which run counter to prevailing thinking about how to encourage offenders to correct their anti-social behavior.  For example, there are some who maintain that providing cognitive behavioral treatment directed at the assessed needs of mid to high risk offenders is essential to improving outcomes.  While there is evidence that indicates that properly devised and implemented treatment initiatives targeted to the right offenders can indeed improve outcomes, there is also evidence that crime can be reduced absent providing treatment. One such strategy is to adopt a deterrence based approach that relies on infractions being detected and sanctioned on every occasion.  These punishments should not be harsh but must be delivered close to the time of the detected infraction. Another promising approach is to find ways to harness the power of “informal social controls” including pro-social friends and family, and involvement with faith and community-based organizations.

In summary, I believe that we have reasons to be optimistic about our ability to make communities safer and individual lives better.  We need to continue to invest our time and energy in building and sustaining collaborative relationships, supporting scientific research, and devising and implementing strategies informed by all evidence. Our communities hold great promise for solutions.  Viewing the world through the lens of an offender will help us to identify the many entities serving segmented needs of one person and will allow us to create innovative solutions and maximize sources for sustaining these initiatives.  Our work has always been important, but may be more so now as the resource pie becomes smaller and constituencies must continuously make a compelling case for resources, which inevitably means not supporting another cause.  It is our duty to make a compelling, fact-based argument on what is at stake if we do not push forward in smart ways.  A dear friend told me that he hoped I would make choices based on the probabilities of doing the “greatest good for the greatest number.”  I can think of no other field where the opportunities are so great to do just that.  So, my wish for all of us is that we sustain our belief in the possibilities of positive change and that we move forward with enthusiasm.

  • Skills & Expertise

    • Expert Witness in prison adjustment, determining risk for reoffense and offender reentry.
    • Expert witness in Juvenile Lifer Without Possibility of Parole (JLWOP) resentencing.
    • Public Policy Analyses
    • Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation
    • Data Collection, Analyses and Presentation
    • Grant Writing and Management
    • Public Administration
    • Strategic Planning
    • Program Development and Monitoring
    • Public Speaking
    • Legislative Testimony
    • Leading Collaborative Teams
    • Training and Development
    • Budget Preparation