Sunday, April 12, 2020

From Behind Bars - Ending Mass Incarceration - Part 3


The Inside Story of How Prison Reform Got Done | Time
Pres. Trump signs "First Step Act"  Image from Time Mag.

By Michael Liebowitz
A Connecticut prisoner for nearly 25 years, Liebowitz is currently housed at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, CT.  He is also co-author of "Down the Rabbit Hole: How the Culture of Corrections Encourages Crime", available at Amazon.  Liebowitz is also a regular guest with Todd Feinburg on WTIC AM 1080.  Podcasts of Todd's segments with Liebowitz can be heard, here.



Widespread Implementation of Evidence-Based Programs


Before delving into what I mean by “evidence-based programs”, I think it will be helpful to first briefly discuss the history of the idea that one of the purposes of prisons is to rehabilitate offenders.



          The penitentiary system was created in the late 18th century and came into prominence in the 19th.  From the beginning it was supposed that among the goals of incarceration was that of reforming the character of criminals.  Whether through the “silent system” as at New York’s Auburn prison, or the “separate system” at Pennsylvania’s Cherry Hill prison, it was thought that removing offenders from society, making them labor, intensively, and teaching them religion would get them to atone for their sins and alter their evil ways. 


          By the late19th century it became clear that this model was failing, and changes were soon enacted.  Labor and religion were still very much part of the prison experience, but new reforms, such as indeterminate sentencing, were added to the mix.  While never fully implemented in practice, the idea of the indeterminate sentence was that there would be no specified period of time to which criminals would be sentenced.  Instead, they would be released when their actions demonstrated that they were ready for society; this was thought to provide offenders with the necessary incentive to reform themselves.


          Parole, probation, vocational education and rehabilitation programs developed in the early 20th century, making up what came to be known as the “rehabilitative ideal.”  Then in 1954 the American Prison Association became the American Correctional Association and prisons became “correctional institutions.”


          After approximately 70 years as the dominant idea in criminal justice, the rehabilitative ideal fell into disrepute.  The 1960s and 70s were turbulent times characterized by several high-profile assassinations, war, protests, and rising crime rates.  Many people lost faith in society’s ability to reform offenders.  A perfect storm was in place for what was perhaps the most significant blow against the rehabilitative ideal: Robert Martinson’s “nothing works” report.

A plethora of studies have shown that certain types of programs, when implemented properly, lead to significant reductions in recidivism.


          In 1974 Martinson and his colleagues released the results of a study they had conducted in which they concluded that; by and large, nothing works to reform offenders.  This conclusion soon assumed the status of dogma, a dogma that has been difficult to shake.  Never mind the serious methodological weaknesses in the study; never mind the numerous studies that have shown the “nothing works” position to be erroneous; and never mind that prior to his death, Martinson himself partially reconsidered.  The verdict was in: criminals were incorrigible. 


Criminal sanctions and inappropriate human services increased recidivism . . .


          What does the evidence actually indicate?  A plethora of studies have shown that certain types of programs, when implemented properly, lead to significant reductions in recidivism.  One such study, or rather a meta-analysis of studies, has been expanded to include 225 studies yielding 374 tests of how judicial and correctional interventions impacted recidivism.


          Comparisons of these interventions were based on whether they adhered to 0, 1, 2, or 3 hypothesized effective principles of rehabilitation.  The results were as follows: Criminal sanctions and inappropriate human services increased recidivism by two percentage points; human services adhering to one principle reduced recidivism by two points; human services consistent with two principles decreased recidivism by 18 points; and when adhering to all three principles, human services reduced recidivism by 26 points.  These results are undoubtedly impressive, but what exactly are these effective principles of rehabilitation?  Answering this question is where I now turn.


          The model that informs effective correctional practices is the Risk, Need, Responsivity (RNR) Model of Offender Assessment and Treatment.  “By the late 1980s it was becoming clear that treatment could be effective in reducing offender recidivism, but it was unclear why some treatments were more effective than others.  When reviewing the offender rehabilitation literature, D. A. Andrews, James Bonta and Robert Hoge (1990) observed certain patterns associated with the more effective treatment programs.



They formulated three general principles for purposes of effective classification and correctional treatment: the (1) risk, (2) need, and (3) responsivity principles … “  Although other principles have since been added to the model, these three still make up its core.


          According to the risk principle, programs are most effective at reducing recidivism when addressed to moderate-to-high risk offenders. Also, the intensity of an intervention should match the risk level of the participant.  Finally, it’s generally undesirable to mix high and low-risk offenders, together.  The RNR model identifies eight central risk factors: 1) Criminal history; 2) Pro-criminal attitudes; 3) Pro-criminal associates; 4) Antisocial personality patterns; 5) Family/marital status; 6) School/work status or attitude; 7) Substance abuse; 8) Leisure/recreation activities. 


          The “need” principle posits that the factors most associated with criminal behavior are the ones that should be targeted for intervention.   Perhaps you have noticed that of the above risk factors, only one, criminal history, is unchangeable, or “static”.  The rest are changeable, or “dynamic”. The seven dynamic risk factors are called “criminogenic needs”.  Not only are these alterable, but they are the “factors most associated with criminal behavior”.  These characteristics make them appropriate for interventions. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, addressed to criminogenic needs, has been especially successful at reforming offenders.


The responsivity principle is that interventions need to be appropriate to the characteristics of the offender.  Two types of responsivity are encompassed by this principle; specific and general.  Specific responsivity refers to the idea that interventions should be adapted to factors unique to the individual, such as age, gender and personality for instance.  General responsivity means that certain types of programs have been more effective than others in treating offenders.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, addressed to criminogenic needs, has been especially successful at reforming offenders.  Among the characteristics of these programs are, that; therapists model pro-social behavior, participants engage in role plays to practice acting appropriately, and offenders learn cognitive restructuring.  In the last, the therapist teaches the offender to identify his antisocial and irresponsible attitudes, values and beliefs and eliminate and replace them with their pro-social and responsible counterparts.  Of particular importance is that offenders learn to take personal responsibility for their lives.  It’s up to them to reform themselves and to maintain positive changes, once they’ve been achieved.  The offenders need to understand that no one can do this for them and no one owes it to them to try. 


          An example of a program that fits the “evidence-based” description is the Reasoning & Rehabilitation (R&R) program created by Robert Ross.  As part of the curriculum, group leaders instruct offenders on how to replace deeply rooted antisocial thinking patterns with those pro-social in nature.  The leaders also model pro-social behaviors so as to demonstrate to offenders what those behaviors look like in practice.  R&R makes use of line-level correctional employees, the idea being that their participation has the benefit of getting them to buy-in to the program and become invested in the outcomes.


          In a study conducted in 1988 by Ross and others, R&R was compared to a “life skills” program and regular probationers.  Only 18.1% of R&R participants recidivated compared to 47.5% of those who only took the life skills program and 69.5% of the regular probationers who did not participate in any program. 


          A 1995 study by Porpino and Robinson found that R&R had its greatest benefit when conducted in the community.  “A 66.3% reduction in new convictions was observed for offenders treated in the community compared with a 16.23% reduction among those from institutional programs.” 


          Almost as important as knowing what to do, is knowing what not to do. When it comes to rehabilitation programs, not all are created equal.  Not all programs reduce recidivism, and some actually increase it.  Moreover, even evidence-based programs sometimes fail to achieve positive results.  So what are the types of programs that are ineffective and why do good ones sometimes miss the mark?  Let’s see. 

Unfortunately, in my 22 years of incarceration, the vast majority of programs in which I’ve participated fit the criteria of ineffective approaches.


          Ineffective approaches to treating offenders include client-centered, non-directive techniques; psychodynamic and insight-oriented methods; bibliotherapy and those that target non-criminogenic needs such as self-esteem and anxiety.  This last is vital.  In order to be effective, programs must target criminogenic needs.  In fact, those that spend the bulk of their time addressing non-criminogenic needs have been shown to increase, rather than reduce, recidivism. 


          Unfortunately, in my 22 years of incarceration, the vast majority of programs in which I’ve participated fit the criteria of ineffective approaches.  Consider, for example, the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).  The AVP facilitators manual describes the program as experiential, i.e., nondirective.  Rather than directly teach offenders how to identify and alter their criminal thinking patterns, the program emphasizes that “solutions” will come from the group.  However, it is difficult for me to grasp how responsible solutions are supposed to emanate from a group of irresponsible failures who have spent their lives violating the rights of others and acting contrary to their own long-term interest.


          The program further emphasizes childhood trauma, societal injustice, and their impact on offenders.  Consider the following two exercises: Injunctions from Childhood, the purpose of which is “To heighten awareness of how things that were said to us in childhood affect our lives”, and Masks, the purpose of which is “To help surface the feelings that surround social discrimination of all sorts and to inform a discussion about the roots of violence/conflict that live in discrimination”.  These are clearly “insight oriented” exercises.  And not only do they address non-criminogenic needs, they also encourage offenders to blame factors outside themselves for their destructive behavior, rather than take responsibility for their own choices.  This last is particularly counterproductive.  As many experts have pointed out, viewing themselves as victims provides criminals with a rationalization for their antisocial behavior. 

The problem here, . . . is that raising an offender’s self-esteem without altering his character leaves you with a criminal who feels comfortable with his criminality.


          Finally, instead of telling offenders that their behavior is immoral and indefensible, the program seeks to make them feel good about themselves, i.e., to raise their self-esteem.  In AVP’s opening talk, for instance, the facilitators instruct the group that “Everyone is important and everyone is valuable”; and, “We look for and affirm one another’s good points”.  The problem here, as numerous researchers have noted, is that raising an offender’s self-esteem without altering his character leaves you with a criminal who feels comfortable with his criminality.  I agree with those researchers who maintain that offenders need to be made to feel guilty, rather than good about themselves.  The discomfort of guilt will presumably provide offenders with the necessary motivation to change.

Whether it be from poor design or improper implementation, it is in my mind inexcusable that so many correctional programs fail to reform offenders.


          As was mentioned above, even evidence-based programs sometimes fail to reduce recidivism.  The main reason this occurs is because the program is delivered with a lack of “therapeutic integrity”, which is the degree to which a program is implemented as it was intended to be.  A lack of therapeutic integrity can occur for a variety of reasons, including inadequate training and a failure on the part of the correctional staff to “buy into” the program: in order to assure therapeutic integrity, it is imperative that staff be well-trained and that the program be frequently monitored for quality control.


          Whether it be from poor design or improper implementation, it is in my mind inexcusable that so many correctional programs fail to reform offenders.  There exists now an abundance of available evidence for “what works”.  It’s time to put theory into practice.  Throughout the country we need to implement cognitive-behavioral programs that address the criminogenic needs of moderate to high-risk offenders.



(A brief note on education)

          While education has been shown to reduce recidivism, it has not been nearly as effective as the cognitive-behavioral programs discussed above.  Still, I believe it can be a valuable adjunct to these programs.  After all, the better educated they are, the more employable ex-offenders are likely to be.  And if they are able to find employment, rehabilitative efforts have a better chance of succeeding.  Thus, including vocational, general, and higher education in a plan to reduce crime makes sense. 

Typed from the author's hand written essay by Linda Johnson and edited by William Boylan, Editor-in-Chief.

Parts 1 and 2, along with the entire From Behind Bars series, can be seen, here

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