“What Works: Evidence-Based Practices in Community Corrections” is part of the” DC Public Safety” television series.
We welcome your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This show provides an overview of “what works” in community corrections through an examination of research-based practices. Participants include:
Nancy G. LaVigne, Ph.D. Director, Justice Policy Center, The Urban Institute
Thomas Williams, Associate Director, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency
Debra Kafami, Ph.D, Executive Assistant, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency
The program is offered by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, a federal executive branch entity in Washington, D.C.
This television program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/video/2010/11/what-works-evidence-based-practices-in-community-corrections/
The show is hosted by Leonard Sipes. Timothy Barnes is the Producer.
Transcript available at
Len Sipes: Hi. And welcome to DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. You know, today’s program is pretty interesting. It’s about what works in community based corrections or evidence-based corrections. There’s quite a bit of research out there now that indicates that you can reduce crime, you can reduce recidivism, you can help the cost to states in terms of the criminal justice system, that you can take tax burdens and turn them into tax payers. But the problem on the part of the practitioner throughout the country is that they are having a hard time taking all of this research and turning it into day-to-day practice.
And to talk about that whole concept of taking the research and turning into day-to-day practice, we have three principals with us today. We have Dr. Nancy La Vigne. She’s the Director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. We have Thomas Williams. He is the Associate Director of Community Supervision Services for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, my agency. And we have Debra Kafami. Dr. Kafami is the Executive Assistant in Community Supervision Services at Court Services, and Offender Supervision Agency too. Nancy, and to Tom, and to Deb, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Debra Kafami: Thanks, great to be here.
Thomas Williams: Thank you Len, glad to be here.
Len Sipes: We have this really interesting conversation that all four of us have had over the course of years of taking this massive amount of research from the Department of Justice, from the Urban Institute, from Pew, from lots of other organizations, and the struggle that we have to make it practical, to make it real, to read through all the volumes of material, and to get down and take a look at it, and say, “Boom, okay, this is something I can use at the state or local level.” Nancy, now the Urban Institute– You sort of specialize in that. And you’ve been doing this sort of research for decades.
Nancy Lavigne: That’s right. The Urban Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization based in Washington as you know. We’ve got policy centers across a wide array of topics from education policy to health policy to tax policy. And as director of the Justice Policy Center in the Urban Institute, I direct evaluation and research, a team of over 35 researchers. And one of our main goals is to find out the truth, what does work, and why does it work? And on what populations? And in what context?
Len Sipes: Right. And so the average person sitting– I’ve give you an example of a couple years ago. Tom, and I, and Deb, all three of us come from the Maryland Department of Public Safety. I’m sitting there in the Secretary of Public Safety’s office, and he says, “I got off the phone with the governor. The governor saw this program about boot camp on ABC Evening News. And now he wants us to do boot camps.” And I’m sitting there going, “Well, what is the evidence on boot camps? What is the research?” It was the governor who came along, and said, “I’ve got a great idea. Let’s do boot camps,” rather than the research pushing us in that direction. That’s how the criminal justice system seems to work correct?
Nancy Lavigne: Right. And that’s an interesting example because of all the different kinds of interventions out there. I think the research is most definitive on boot camps and that they don’t work. I know that as a researcher, but does the practitioner community know that? I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re getting the word out the way we need to be.
Len Sipes: And one of the things, interestingly enough, you take a look at the DARE Program, which is a police-oriented, police-run program for kids to teach them about the dangers of substance abuse. Now the DARE research seems to be pretty negative, yet DARE thrives. So there are other dimensions here. There is the evidence-based part of it, and there’s the practical, reality base to interpret what people want, what they’re comfortable with. Tom, now you went to China to talk about evidence-based procedures. You lectured in that country. You’ve written articles. You’ve gone to conferences throughout the country talking about evidence-based procedures. I know you’ve had this conversation with people in the field in terms of how you take all of this research and make it practical to make it real.
Thomas Williams: Well, that’s correct, Len. I was in China three years ago lecturing on evidence-based practices. And actually, part of my discussion with the Chinese there, the delegation, was actually giving a historical perspective about evidence-based practices. As you know, some of your viewers probably know as well, prior to Lipton, Martin and Wilks coming out with the “Nothing Works” document that actually revolutionized basically the way that we deal with offenders in a criminal justice way, we had a single theory with regards how we manage offenders basically from a prison standpoint. And that is an indeterminate sentencing. So you went into prison, you got rehabilitated hopefully and you came out and that continued.
But unfortunately with that “Nothing Works” theory that came out, that really revolutionized things for which it was a whole metamorphosis of now we just put a man and through away the key.
Len Sipes: That was during the 1970s, correct?
Thomas Williams: That’s correct.
Len Sipes: With landmark research basically suggested that they took a look at all the evaluations and they came to the conclusion– Now he would say that that conclusion was exaggerated. But there was a point where the consensus from the criminal justice systems and in criminology was that there’s no sense trying to help individuals while in prison, and while they come out of prison, commonly know as re-entry. Because nothing does work. But we’ve moved way beyond that now, correct?
Thomas Williams: Well, and that’s the point I was getting ready to make the next point, is that there’s been a whole body of research now that basically says that when you provide intensive supervision services, in addition to special design programs, you are going to have dramatic reductions in re-arrests and also recidivism rates, recidivism meaning those persons who go back to prison. So that whole body of knowledge now is a wealth of knowledge that’s out there that a lot of criminal justice professionals are now using to develop programs within their own individuals entities.
Len Sipes: And what I want to do is briefly run over, take 15 seconds and go over some of the programs that have worked. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy in 2006, they came a long with a very brief, but a very comprehensive piece of research taking a look at the individual programs in terms of what works and what doesn’t. And also, at the same time, talking about the percentage reductions. But beyond that, we’ve had drugs courts, cognitive behavioral therapy, which is teaching individuals how to think differently about their own lives, Project Hope in Hawaii. We’ve had re-entry programs in San Diego, jobs through the Department of Labor, jobs programs, substance abuse treatment, mental health courts. All of these programs have shown that it’s possible to reduce recidivism, it’s possible to reduce crime, not by leaps and bounds. Because the research seems to indicate that there’s a 10 to 20 percent reduction in recidivism. So the possibility is there. Debra?
Debra Kafami: What we seem to be talking about is results-based management. What gets measures gets done. And it’s so important because if you can look at your results, you can distinguish your successes from your failures.
Len Sipes: And that’s one of the things that I’m really impressed by. You’re in charge of our SMART System. You’re the basically the person who has helped design the SMART System which is our own book-keeping system which has our own internal management system. And all the way throughout this process in the 6.5 years I’ve been with CSOSA, you’ve said, “Unless you measure it, it doesn’t happen.” What happens, what gets done is what gets measured. Correct?
Debra Kafami: Correct. And like I said, it’s so important so you can distinguish the successes from the failures. Because if something is successful, it can be replicated. And if it’s a failure, they want to know so you can go back and fix it.
Len Sipes: Right.
Debra Kafami: Sometimes a very good program works well in one area of the country, but you bring it to another place and implement it the same exact way and it may not work. So you may not want to just totally throw the program away. But you can work and figure out what went wrong, and try and correct it and make it work.
Len Sipes: And boy did you just hit the nail on the head, Dr. Kafami or Debbie. Because that’s the conversation I have with practitioners all the time. And any one of you can jump in on this. It’s that Project Hope in Hawaii, where you take probationers who have a meth problem. And if they mess up, you immediately put them in a local incarcerated setting. And you do provide treatment. And eventually they have good outcomes. And different people are saying, “Well, Leonard, you know that’s a wonderful idea. But I don’t have the jail space to move people in there every time they mess up while they’re on community supervision.” So as Debbie said, because it works in Hawaii, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in DC, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in Rhode Island. And that’s the frustration on the part of parole or probation people throughout the country. How do I take all this research and distill it and apply it to my particular situation?
Thomas Williams: Right. But I don’t think this argument, on the one hand, jail or prison versus community corrections. Certainly I think we need both. I mean, there’s a certain segment of the population for which they do, unfortunately, need to be incarcerated. Because they won’t change, they’re not willing to change, and they have no desire to change. For that group with regards to the accountability that we need, in community corrections, need to have with regards to the public, and also letting the public know that we’re serious about quote-unquote changing behaviors. We do need to, unfortunately, incarcerate that segment of the population.
Len Sipes: There’s no question that we have to incarcerate. There’s no question that there are people out there who pose a clear and present danger to our society. And they have to go to prison. There’s no doubt about that. But the overwhelming majority of the people under correctional supervision in this country are on community supervision, they’re supervised by parole and probation agencies. Like 85 percent are being supervised by parole and probation agencies.
So when people think of corrections, prisons, which is the first thing that comes to their mind, is a tiny part of it. The overwhelming majority of people under correctional supervision belong to us. And the practitioners are saying, “What do I do with all these people?”
Nancy Lavigne: Right. Well, I think we can take this apart into different pieces of the challenges that practitioners face and trying to digest all the research that’s out there and use it in a meaningful way. For one, as a researcher and an academic, I know what the research is because I get the journals in the mail and I can read them and understand them. For practitioners, they may see a study here or there. It’s usually not written in a way that’s accessible.
And in addition, there’s just a bunch of different studies, and some say something works, and some say the same thing doesn’t. And so it’s very hard for someone to say, “In the balance, what really does work and why and how and on what population?” So one thing we’re doing at the Urban Institute is trying to cull all the research out there on the topic of prisoner re-entry. Now it sounds narrow, prisoner re-entry. But as you know, prisoner re-entry encompasses everything.
Len Sipes: It’s huge.
Nancy Lavigne: It’s housing, it’s mental house treatment, it’s substance abuse. It’s everything. It’s in-prison programs. It’s programs after release. It’s programs for literacy, for employment and so forth. So we’ve identified over 1,000 individual studies that fall under this umbrella of re-entry. And those are studies that are truly evaluative in nature. Now what we’re doing is reviewing each and every study and rating it according to its level of rigor. Because that’s another challenge for the practitioner community. They see a study and it says something works, and they don’t have the knowledge to understand whether that’s a definitive–
Len Sipes: It’s methodologically correct or not? Yes.
Nancy Lavigne: Of course. So we’re reading them and we’re going to compile all that information and develop it into an online, searchable website that’s part of the National Reentry Resource Center. So this is all funded under the Second Chance Act.
Len Sipes: Right. And it’s all being funded by Department of Justice and the Assistant Attorney General.
Nancy Lavigne: Yes.
Len Sipes: She’s really focusing on making the research come alive.
Nancy Lavigne: Yes.
Thomas Williams: Let me just cut in. What we just touched on just a minute ago are the challenges that folks who are coming back from prison have with regards to trying to reestablish themselves within a community. Issues of substance abuse, issues of employment, issues of housing are major issues, interpersonal relationships, and who do I associate with when I do come back to the community?
We’ve got all bodies of research now on those individual topics and collectively to kind of help the practitioner. And I think one of the things that kind of argues against a practitioner sometimes is, how do I actually take this research and apply it to my day-to-day job? And then number two, how do I actually target the right population? Because you could have a program that you think is good because you read the research, but then if you target the wrong person, then you’re not going to have the results that’s expected.
Len Sipes: And that’s my point, again, going back to our Maryland Department of Public Safety days when the public safety secretary– A new piece of research would come out from the National Institute of Justice. He’d plop it on my desk, and go, “Sipes, give me a two-page summation on this.” Because he didn’t want to go through this telephone-sized book filled with facts and figures and the methodological review. He just wanted to know what the lessons were and how we could apply those lessons within the Maryland Department of Public Safety. And Deb, I think the practitioner community is overwhelmed by the research. And they just don’t understand how to use everything that’s before them. It’s like having this gigantic feast and you have toothpicks to eat. I mean, you just can’t distill all of this information.
Debra Kafami: You can’t do everything at once. You just don’t have the resources to do everything. And there’s not just one magic bullet: “Do this program; everything will be better.” And it takes time. And many times you just don’t have that luxury. People want to see the results, they want to see it now. But sometimes it could take three years at least from beginning of a program to start to see some tangible results.
Len Sipes: Okay. And we’re going to be talking about resources on the second part of it. Because the other big complaint on the part of the practitioner community throughout the country is, I don’t have the resources to implement all of this. First, they’ve got to get through the research. They’ve got to understand the research. They’ve got to understand how to apply the research. And then they’ve got to come up with the resources. And ladies and gentlemen, we’ll discuss that resource question when the second segment of DC Public Safety– Stay right there, we’ll be back with this intriguing conversation on what works in terms of community-based corrections. We’ll be right back.
Hi, welcome back to DC Public Safety. I continue to be your host, Leonard Sipes. Our guests continue in the second half of the segment.
Dr. Nancy La Vigne. She’s the Director of the Justice Policy Center for the Urban Institute. Thomas Williams, he is the Associate Director of Supervision Services from my agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, and Dr. Debra Kafami, Executive Assistant again for Court Services and Offender Supervision. And to Nancy, and to Tom, and to Deb, welcome back to DC Public Safety.
Debra Kafami: Thank you very much.
Len Sipes: All right. So in terms of this discussion, it’s going to be seen in the District of Columbia, it’s going to be seen throughout the country. So what we have, and Debra talked about it, at the end of the first half is, okay, so we have all these studies. And Nancy, Urban Institute is doing a wonderful job and Department of Justice and the National Resource Center, everybody’s doing a wonderful job of taking all of this evidence and distilling it down into useful lessons for practitioners in the field. So that’s lesson number one, correct? Okay.
Lesson number two is when I talk to my peers in the field, they say, “Leonard, okay fine. The evidence says that you need to design a program around that individual. No more cookie-cutter drug treatment. If that woman has had a history of sexual abuse in her younger years, which is not unusual for the female offenders that we have under our supervision, the reason for doing drugs is tied into the fact that she was sexually molested at nine and ten years of age. That substance abuse program needs to be designed with her specific conditions in mind. They can’t be cookie cutter. But I don’t have the money to do it. I refer her to a community health program. And four months down the road, they put her into a group program that meets twice a week for one hour at a time. And it’s cookie cutter and it’s not designed for her. So I know the evidence that design a program specifically for her but I don’t have the money to do it.” What do we tell a person under those circumstances?
Nancy Lavigne: I think you’re thinking too big. I don’t think you should be thinking about new programs. I think you should be thinking about how we can advise the field on using existing resources and programs more wisely.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Nancy Lavigne: We do a lot of partnerships with practitioners and it’s often to evaluate existing programs or to assist people in measuring success. They say, “We can’t measure success. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the expertise.” And I said, “Well, how do you know you’re even serving the right population to begin with? You should be collecting that data to begin with. Because that’s the same data we need to evaluate the program.” “Oh, well yeah, I guess we’re not collecting that.” And when we go back and look and see whether there’s a one-per-one match between people who have, for example, histories of substance abuse and whether they’re getting treatment, we’ve been stunned to find that as many as 50 percent of people who are enrolled in treatment don’t have those extensive histories. So there’s a mismatch and–
Len Sipes: We may be taking the wrong people to go in to begin with.
Nancy Lavigne: –and resource allocation. And that’s another way that you can use evidence to improve practices that doesn’t require new resources.
Len Sipes: So the evidence says, “Be sure you pick the right people to go into the right programs to begin with?”
Nancy Lavigne: That’s right. It’s being smarter with the resources you currently have.
Thomas Williams: Well, if you think about the Drug Court movement over ten years ago, that’s basically how the Drug Court movement got started. Certainly there was a little bit of money that came from the federal government to help support that.
Len Sipes: Right.
Thomas Williams: But there’s the whole issue of collaboration. And as we just discussed here a few minutes ago is targeting the right people for the right program, and making sure that the program fits the needs that you’re trying to address. So one way that you can do that is basically having a good assessment system, a good assessment protocol where you’re actually trying to identify the risk to re-offend, and how do you minimize that risk to re-offend? By the same token, identifying the particular needs that are specific to that group or that population that you’re looking for, and put that person in that particular program. Then you can match up those two things and then have most of the literature saying that you will have. But the whole issue of collaboration is important, because one entity can’t do it alone. Criminal justice entities cannot do it by itself. It needs the collaboration of the systems that are out there to help support what we’re trying to do in terms of that behavior change. But also as important as that is the social support that needs to come following that. So as we have the services, as we’re providing the services, as we’re now having that level of success, what is following that program either by the family members or the community that’s going to help sustain that success that we have?
Len Sipes: Okay. And I think you just summarized the principal findings in terms of the evidence-based process. Somebody said some time ago that in terms of the substance abuse end of it, that the National Institute on Drug Abuse and SAMSA has had the last four decades to think through this process.
And they do give out very specific guidelines in terms of how to handle the individual, how to assess the individual, how to design a program for that specific individual, follow up. So they are very, very specific.
And supposedly we, in community corrections, are in our infancy in terms of developing this evidence-based approach. But SAMSA, in the National Institute of Drug Abuse, they’re the leaders, so to speak, in terms of taking a population in need and figuring it out, exactly what works for them. And so what we have to do is do that for mental health, what we have to do in terms of jobs, what we have to do in terms of supervision techniques. And what you’re saying at the same time is that not everybody gets the same levels of services.
Thomas Williams: And they don’t and they shouldn’t get it. Anyone that assesses at the high level of supervision with intensive or maximum, whatever it’s called. But wherever the high level is, that’s the group that you want to target. And you want to put those persons into your high-end, costly programming. The low-end of the spectrum that’s a low-level supervision, you might just want to provide life skills to them at best. But the literature really tells us that if you have someone who’s assessed at the low level, you really shouldn’t be spending any resources on them at all.
Nancy Lavigne: That’s right. In fact it can actually be harmful. If you look at the literature on halfway houses, it’s pretty definitive that the lowest level offenders who are coming back to the community do worse off when they have to go into halfway houses. And the theory is that it’s preventing them from finding jobs, keeping jobs, reuniting with family in a way that’s detrimental.
Len Sipes: Well, there was a book years ago called Radical Non-Intervention, and the message of that book and this is a book that’s 40-years-old, was be careful as to who you put into particular programs. You may not want to intervene in the lives of certain people. They’re marginally involved in the criminal justice system, you do as little with them as you possibly can. The more you try to help them, the more you try to supervise them, the more they get sucked into the criminal justice system. So it’s picking the right person to receive the right services, correct?
Debra Kafami: It’s not so much picking but identifying the right person through a validated risk and needs assessment instrument like Tom said. You want to focus on those high risk offenders, and you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Thomas Williams: Let me go back to the 1980s to the RAN study that was done on intensive supervision where basically because the staff were able to have a lower case load and follow people more closely, they had high levels of re-arrest, or re-offending, technical violations I should say.
Len Sipes: Right. They put more people back in prison.
Thomas Williams: Right. But the important thing about that is that the services weren’t there. So they had high-level folks that they were monitoring, which they should be doing, trying to keep tabs on what they were up to and trying to make sure they were reporting for their appointments and things like that, or going to services. But the more they watched them, the more technical violations actually were recorded, which eventually led them to be revoked. But the problem was that the services for these high-end folks was not provided.
Len Sipes: Right. And that’s the same research that applies to boot camp, that you can’t just supervise people intensely because the more you supervise them, the more violate them. There’s got to be a combination of supervision and programs. And that’s what seems to work, correct?
Debra Kafami: Yes. And the programs really need to be cognitive-based programs.
Len Sipes: Cognitive-base, and I talked a little bit about that at the beginning of the program, means helping them think through their issues to be sure that they see the world better, make better decisions.
Debra Kafami: Yeah. It’s a program where there’s a lot of role-playing and skill development for the offenders. They have to be able to go out in the community and deal with issues in an appropriate manner. And they need skills to do that.
Len Sipes: So in the closing minutes of the program, is there today one document – and I know Nancy, you were talking about Urban is working on it, Justice is working on it, the National Center is working on it – but in essence we’re working towards one comprehensive approach. So it’s no longer the people in Milwaukee or in Alaska or wherever they happen to be; they’re going to be able to have resources in the near future that gives them the best available evidence in terms of how to proceed, correct?
Nancy Lavigne: Yes. But my fear is that once we get all this evidence out there, the Project Hope is a perfect example of this. Everyone’s latching on to it as this silver bullet that’s going to reduce recidivism. And I think that’s really ill-advised. It gets back to this validated risk and needs assessment tool. You really need to know what population you’re dealing with. And each person has different needs and risks. And Project Hope may work for some but not others. I fear that once we get all this wonderful information out there, people are going to pick and choose, “I want to do this program because it has the biggest impact on recidivism,” rather than, “This is the population I’m trying to deal with. Now what program fits their issues and their needs?”
Len Sipes: So the lesson seems to be from the three of you as that, A, we are going to have that assessment, we just need to provide guidance in terms of how to use the evidence; and B, Tom you mentioned the partnerships, the parole and probation agencies aren’t there by themselves. They really have to coalesce with the people providing the mental health services, the people providing the job services. There really has to be that. I think they will begin to coalesce once the research is placed in one easy-to-read venue, correct? Look, the jobs people, they’re burdened. They’re under and enormous burden. And you go them, as we did at Maryland Public Safety, and they’re not overly-enthusiastic about taking on a new role.
Thomas Williams: I just want to kind of dovetail a little bit on what Nancy said, I think the hope or the future for those who are managing or directing criminal justice agencies is pretty good. I think we’re in a pretty good space right now. The research is coming out. I think there’s a lot of interest in Congress now about those offenders who are returning and what do we do to put them on a different plane so that they can then be successfully in the community. And I think from the standpoint of the Justice Department, the various agencies under the Justice Department, are actually giving guidance on this whole issue, I think is so fundamentally important.
So even though a probation director may want to do something, as Nancy indicated before and Debbie, you many not have to do it on a larger scale. But you can target your population on those persons who are the most riskiest to re-offend And then once you target on that most risky population, using the research and using the funds that will be coming from Congress. We will start to see dramatic effects. I would like to go back to the 70’s when we had a single theory in this country for managing offenders within the country.
Len Sipes: It seems to me now that with President Obama’s Administration there is strong support for re-entry. It seems to be with Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson over at the Department of Justice, she’s a strong proponent of the evidence-based process, and research, and reentry. The Second Chance Act that went through Congress, we now have hundreds of billions of dollars for states and jurisdictions throughout the country to implement re-entry based programs. Match all that up with the fact that the states can no longer afford to incarcerate. In fact, states are cutting back on their budget by, again, tens of millions of dollars in individual states.
They can no longer afford the level of incarceration. So we now seem to be at an appropriate time where evidence-based and re-entry practices now just come together at a very opportune time. But the individual practitioners are still saying, “Len, help me understand this research and where am I going to get the money?” So it’s still coming down to that. What we’re saying to them is that there’s hope in terms of the coalescing of the research; there’s hope hopefully in terms of the money. But you have to do partnerships, you have to take this research and get together with your fellow agencies and make it come alive. Is that it, Deb?
Debra Kafami: Exactly. The collaboration is key to implementing evidence-based practices successfully.
Len Sipes: Right. Parole and probation agencies are just not going to do it on their own. It has to be the governor of that particular state coming together, and saying, “You guys have got to get together and do this.”
Thomas Williams: As well as the community stepping up as well. When that person comes back to that community, he wants to feel apart of that community. And the family support that’s actually needed to support that person once they go through the various programmings is so fundamentally important.
Len Sipes: Okay. Tom, you had the final word. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us on DC Public Safety as we explore this whole concept as to what works in corrections, evidence-based corrections. Watch for us next time as we explore another very important part of our criminal justice system. And please have yourself a very, very pleasant day.
Series Meta terms: Criminal, Justice, what, works, drug, treatment, educational, vocational, assistance, employment, interviews, policy, makers, staff, probation, parole, reentry