When I first started working in the jail 22 years ago, painted on the wall adjacent to the entrance to the staff area was something like the words, “Treat a person as they are and they will stay that way. Treat them as they could be, and they will become that person.” It only took me a couple months working the floor to understand why most corrections staff wanted to paint over those idealistic words and replace them with, “if you don’t want to be treated like an inmate, stay out of jail.”
For years the debate about what should be accomplished by correctional facilities has raged on. Obviously, keeping violent offenders away from potential victims is one goal, and retribution or punishment is another, but beyond that, is the jail a warehouse or is it a place of rehabilitation? Are we only supposed to be punishing people or should we also be trying to talk them in to not breaking the law again? Is our mission to hold people accountable, or are we also responsible for decreasing the rate at which people return to jail? Should we “treat” offenders by digging up the past and having them confront their mothers, or by teaching them cognitive skills?
Ask ten different corrections officers the best way to keep people from coming back to jail; you will get at least 15 different answers:
“Punish them hard enough and they won’t come back.”
“Be a positive role model for them.”
“Appeal to their selfish nature; convince them that it is in their best interest to stay clean and sober.”
“Make their stay unpleasant.”
“Ship them to Australia or Mexico.”
“Frontal lobe lobotomy paid for through the donation of their plasma is the only way to go.”
Personally, over the years I have held several traditional beliefs shared by many corrections officers. It wasn’t until I was asked to participate on a team several years ago that was charged with the reinvention of how we would engage in correctional practices in the county I live in that I was forced to look at the science behind modern correctional practices. Although I am sure I appeared open minded on the outside, on the inside I went kicking and screaming into the event; slowly becoming more and more convinced that the intelligent thing to do was to go with the science and not my own feelings.
Why trusting science felt so wrong
The conflict inside me was coming from my own pro-social belief system and 15 years of correctional experience at the time trying to tell me what should work on keeping anti-social thinking offenders from coming back to jail. I didn’t agree with the science. However, what I eventually figured out was that I should quit trying to relate to criminals from my own perspective, and trust what the research was telling me.
I eventually gave up on my own thinking that, since the threat of jail and losing my freedom would keep me from committing a crime, it should also keep everyone else from committing a crime. I was raised with pro-social values and have too much to lose But, what I value and what deters me from crime, is far different from what most habitual offenders value and what will deter them.
Please don’t think that I have been brainwashed and turned to the “soft-on-crime side.” Science based strategies for reducing recidivism may appear to be “touchy-feely,” and resemble many unsuccessful well-intended programs from the past. However, in the past, science could have just as easily proved that dragging an offender under a hull of a ship packed with barnacles or giving them a really good caning would turn out to be an evidence-based practice for keeping a burglar or thief from reoffending. The problem is that, today, we are forced to operate within the current societal envelope of acceptable correctional practices. So, given that we are a kinder, gentler society than when the constitution was written - when a public whipping was all the correctional rage - we are forced to only engage in practices that society says are okay. In the end, I personally want to go with what has been proven to work via evidence-based practices.
So, according to science, what does work?
Since the early 90s, sociologists and criminologists have been engaging in a large number of studies as to what works to keep offenders from reoffending. Everything from “boot camps” to “art therapy” has been studied. Offenders that have gone through various programs were tracked for years after completion to see if they ended up going back to jail or prison. Control groups of offenders that had not gone through the programs were also tracked. Then, others came along and did studies of studies to see what, according to the data, works (and doesn’t) -all with the goal of keeping offenders from going back to jail.
So, what do we know so far? Well, as a base, we know that nothing works every time or on every offender. Secondly, some things that we think should work, actually do more harm than good and increase the rates at which offenders return to jail. We also know that if we do everything right, we will, at best, still only lower the recidivism rate by 30 to 40%.
According to literature put out by the National Institute of Corrections and many others in the field, the research indicates that for a correctional system to be effective at reducing recidivism it must adhere to three core concepts:
1. Collaboration between all law criminal justice partners
2. Organizational development - this means that all organizations involved must be on the same page and buy into the plan.
3. All partners involved need to engage in evidence-based practices. These practices are listed below.
It is important to understand that the following six components are all integrated. They all depend on each other to work.
Component #1: Risk/needs assessment
Resources should only be expended on offenders at high and medium risk for reoffending. It should be “hands off” the low risk offenders. In order to determine who is at high risk for reoffending, the offender must undergo an objective risk assessment, using a validated risk assessment instrument. Validated means that, over time, the tool has been proven to be predictive of who will reoffend, and who will not.
Next, those at high and medium risk for recidivism need to go through a criminogenic needs assessment. Crimino-what!?! “Criminogenic” needs are defined as those factors in an offender’s life that contributed to their breaking of the law but are not related to standard causal factors like physical needs, such as food and shelter, or a fiscal need, such as employment. A few examples of criminogenic needs that have been statistically proven to be associated with reoffending are:
1. Having an antisocial peer group
2. Having a drug and alcohol dependency
3. A lack of self-control
4. An antisocial belief system
Not having a job, not having a place to live, or having low self esteem are, by themselves, not criminogenic needs. Give a high-risk offender a job, a home, and increase their self esteem without addressing their criminogenic needs, and what you will have is a thug with a job and a place to crash that feels good about his or her self. This would therefore not have an affect on the offender's future risk of committing a crime.
Component #2: Individual motivators
The next step is to assess the offender for what motivates him or her on an individual basis. This information is used to “self-motivate” the offender.
Component #3: Target the appropriate intervention
The research says that we will do more harm than good to put an offender in a treatment program that they don’t need. Effective interventions for offenders that are in custody should be structured in such a way as to take up 40-70% of high-risk offenders’ time for 3-9 months, depending on their risk level. This actually leaves most jail inmates out of being treated while in custody.
Component #4: Rewire the brain
Evidence-based programming that emphasizes cognitive-behavioral strategies and is delivered by well-trained staff has been proven successful. Skills are not just taught to the offender, but are practiced or role-played. This takes time and repetition. It is nothing less than rewiring the brain through repetitive practice of pro-social behaviors.
Component #5: Increase positive reinforcement
What has been found to be most effective is a four to one ratio of positive reinforcement over sanctions. This can simply take the form of verbal recognition of positive behavior.
People in many parts of the world would be envious of the lifestyles of many inmates who are sitting in a segregation cell. Human beings have a tremendous ability to rapidly adapt to even the most negative environments. Thus, the truth is that since people can become accustomed to not eating for extended periods of time or to sleeping in a fox hole in six inches of water, the sanctions that you can offer in a constitutionally-ran prison or jail quickly become meaningless to them.
Component #6: Ongoing support
Once the offender is released, the most important factor becomes ongoing support in the community. As stated above, an offender’s peer group is the number one leading factor as to whether or not the individual will re-offend. Even more than staying away from drugs, it is tough to stay away from old “friends” and family on the outside. Those deeply entrenched in a gang culture have the greatest challenge. This is why most offenders fail and it is the main factor outside the jail or prison’s control. At most, as far as the corrections system goes, an effective parole and probation system is our best chance of having a positive impact.
Beyond the these six components of a successful program, there is an additional need for evaluation, feedback, and adjustment to the program on an ongoing basis.
If it “works”, why haven’t we done all this before?
Again, nothing works all the time, but these things have been proven to be most effective and give us the most value for our investment when applied as a system. The fact is that these proven practices are being used on a widespread basis in many places like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Indeed, there are also places in the U.S. that are currently conducting their correctional operations strictly according to evidence-based practices. Since several of the strategies are so counter-intuitive to all of us law-abiding, pro-social thinking correctional professionals, often it just doesn’t “feel right.” Thus, evidence-based practices are taking a while to catch on across the U.S.
I am not on commission to get you to buy anything. You can trust the science or you can chose to limit your trust to your own experience.
Most of us in the business of corrections are great at gaining compliance within the walls of the institution and maintaining safety and security. Additionally, after about ten years on the job, any corrections officer probably deserves a Masters degree in social sciences as it pertains to human behavior of large groups of antisocial people who are forced to live together. Yet, at the same time, while we all may have strong opinions on the subject, most of us are seemingly not so great at keeping offenders from coming back to jail or prison, if the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. is any indication.
Thank you for doing what you do every day. You are all my heroes. Stay safe.