Criminal Justice Best Practices-Washington State Institute for Public Policy

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Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes, today’s show is an examination of best practices at the state level. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been looking forward to doing this show for the longest time. At our microphones is Elizabeth Drake, a Senior Research Associate for the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Elizabeth, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Elizabeth Drake: Thank you, Leonard. I appreciate the opportunity to be here.

Len Sipes: I appreciate the fact of you guys being here. Ladies and gentlemen, let me put this in perspective for a second. The State of Washington may be the best example of an exhaustive examination of research at the state and national levels to guide public practice as to criminal justice and additional public initiatives. The research that they’ve offered over the course of decades is easy to read, it’s easy to understand, and they contain a cost-benefit analysis. So even though we’re talking about the experience today in the state of Washington, we are talking about an organization that has had a profound impact, profound influence all throughout the Unites States. Whenever I get into debates or discussions about criminal justice issues and criminal justice practices, the research from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy always come up. Elizabeth, anything I’m saying is an exaggeration to you?

Elizabeth Drake: No. It’s definitely, that’s not an exaggeration. Thank you for the nice thoughts.

Len Sipes: I don’t know of a state that has had this impact. I mean there’s the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. They’ve been around for a long time. Ohio has been around for a long time. Different states are known for doing good research. But no state, no individual state organization, research organization, has had the impact that the Washington State Institute for Public Policy has, and I’m sort of wondering why that is. I think I know why that is, but you tell me.

Elizabeth Drake: You know, I think it could be a couple of different things. I think we’re set up pretty uniquely unlike other states. I think from our experience in talking with other states and sort of traveling around and doing presentations in other states, we’re set up, we were created by the legislature in 1983, and we do nonpartisan research directly for the legislature, so all of our projects are assigned to us through policy bills or budget bills. We also have a board of directors and so our projects can be assigned in that capacity as well. And so I’m not certain that many other states are set up quite like ours. And so that could be one possibility.

We have also been around a long time, like I said, since 1983. So we started our work doing criminal justice projects and have been around since then. We do research in a lot of other areas as well, including education and child welfare and adult behavioral health services and now in public health and other areas as well. So I think sort of growing in that kind of grassroots way, doing research and then getting assignments directly from the legislature and expanding into other areas is sort of what has kind of given us this maybe, different, capability than other states. I don’t know.

Len Sipes: I think it’s that plus. I have sat with folks from the Urban Institute, from the Department of Justice, from lots of other organizations, and the question I always ask is, “Why can’t your research, your very complicated, esoterical, methodologically laden, extraordinarily complex research, why can’t your stuff be as simple to read, as easy to read as the material coming out of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy?” I think it’s the fact that you communicate to the average person. You don’t have to be a criminologist, you don’t have to be a sociologist, you don’t have to be a methodologist to read and understand the impact of various programs and whether or not they’re cost-effective an whether or not we recommend implementing them. And if you implement we believe that this, that there’s a 15 degree, a 15% reduction in recidivism, and we think that you can expect a similar reduction in recidivism. I think it’s the clarity of the material that you create is the secret sauce.

Elizabeth Drake: Len, you’re absolutely right. And that’s something that our Director, it’s something that he tells us all the time. It’s the way that we present our findings, either in presentations or in reports, it has to be readable to the everyday average person, because it really is complicated. It’s complicated message wise, the research, the things that we’re doing, and all of that information is really important. That kind of stuff goes in the appendix. When you’re conveying bottom line information to legislators or policymakers, it absolutely comes down to that front summary box and summarizing things in a very clear and concise way. And I think also a lot of it too is the fact that we are nonpartisan researchers. So there’s a lot of thought that goes into every single word that ends up being put to paper, and we have a really serious editing process to make sure that when we’re writing reports, reports are getting read by several of us in the office, and just to make sure that, “Does this make sense to someone who would pick this up, they don’t anything about this particular topic?”. So that really is something that I think is an important key ingredient to conveying information to policymakers.

Len Sipes: And as I talk to the Urban Institute, and as I talk to the folks over at the Department of Justice, and as I talk to other organizations, they cite your research in terms of the clarity and simplicity, and they’re beginning to try to emulate it. I think Urban has done an extraordinarily good job of taking the complex and making it simple. So let’s move on a little bit, because, but I do want to give the audience a sense as to why you guys have been as successful as you have, a state public policy institute driving the agenda, not just for the state of Washington, but for the rest of us throughout the United States. Okay.

So all of this came out of the Washington State legislature. You get your assignments from them and they say, “Hey, we want you to take a look at recidivism, we want you to take a look at all the programs that apply to people on supervision, offenders on community supervision, programs in prison, and we want you tell us what programs work, what programs don’t, what programs will be cost-effective, how much can we expect for every dollar we invest, and what is the expected percentage decrease in terms of these programs?” And you just don’t look at State of Washington, you look at, you do what we used to literature review. You look at programs that are methodologically correct, which means they’re done properly throughout the Unites States and beyond to come to your conclusions, correct?

Elizabeth Drake: Yeah, correct. We got two kinds of assignments I would sort of put into two different categories. We will often get outcome assignments to look at outcome or do an outcome evaluation, specifically in Washington, that’s sort of one research project that we might get. But oftentimes, more often lately what we’ve been getting are these assignments to look at systematically what works to improve outcomes – either programs that are effective at reducing recidivism, programs that are effective at increasing high school graduation rates or decreasing substance abuse, reducing child abuse and neglect. And so you’re right in that we take the systematic approach to reviewing the research literature and coding all of those studies to see whether or not, say, for example: Are drug courts effective at reducing crime?

And so we take this average effect of studies that meet our minimum standards of rigor, and we have these minimum standards of rigor because we want to be able to reliably provide sound advice to our legislature. And so if we can’t have confidence in a study in terms of its rigor, we don’t include those studies in our systematic review. So that’s something that’s sort of a what works approach, looking at the literature to see what works to improve outcomes and then doing this cost-benefit analysis. And we have a piece of software that we’ve developed in-house that computes benefit-cost statistics, benefits to taxpayers in the state of Washington and return on investment statistics so that we have a sense of how these programs – that’s an internally consistent approach and apples to apples approach so that we can compare different policy options. So then policymakers can look at this sort of consumer reports type list to see which programs have the highest return on investment. So that’s sort of our two step research approach when we’re doing these systematic reviews of the literature.

Len Sipes: And now we have an entire audience that’s sitting there going, “All right, Leonard, stop plugging them and praising them, and, Elizabeth, stop talking about your process.” They want to know from your findings what have been some of the most effective programs in terms of reducing recidivism, coming out of the prison system or being caught up in the criminal justice system. What are some of the most effective programs? That wasn’t on the list of what we were going to talk about. But I just said to myself, “My heavens, we’re driving our listeners crazy.” They want to know what in terms of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy’s research, what programs truly are effective.

Elizabeth Drake: Sure, yeah. So for adult corrections a lot of our work has really been focused on corrections in the criminal justice system. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one program that has a pretty return on investment, pretty effective at reducing recidivism. Different drug treatments, therapeutic communities for chemically dependent offenders, sex offender treatment, supervision when it’s coupled with treatment is fairly effective, and supervision when it’s focused on the risks and needs and responsivity to offenders, that kind of supervision is even more effective than just traditional supervision that’s more of a surveillance style. In the juvenile justice system some of the programs that are heavily invested in here in Washington are invested in, we’ve invested in them, or the state has invested in them because of how effective they are at reducing crime. And some of those programs include aggression or placement training or functional family therapy, multi-systemic therapy.

We have a pretty comprehensive list on our website. These days we’re putting our benefit-cost results directly to our website so that users of our work can find them really easily. We have these sort of reports over time that are static reports. And they’re sort of in a library on our website. But our benefit-cost results now are available on our benefit-cost page to user. So you can click on any of these research areas: Juvenile Justice, Child Welfare, General Prevention of Substance Abuse and see which programs are the most effective. And we rank them by the highest return on investment.

Len Sipes: Elizabeth, what is the website for the Washington State Institute for Public Policy?

Elizabeth Drake: It’s

Len Sipes: Okay. That’s www.wspp –

Elizabeth Drake: Ipp.

Len Sipes: Ipp?

Elizabeth Drake: Yeah.

Len Sipes:

Elizabeth Drake: Right.

Len Sipes: Okay, cool. And one of the things that I discovered in terms of your research was that the that one program in particular that had the highest rate of recidivism reduction were early intervention programs with juvenile offenders working with the parents and working with the offender himself or herself when they were juveniles. I was sort of astounded that by, well, just the impactful program was that particular program. Am I right or wrong?

Elizabeth Drake: Which program are you talking about?

Len Sipes: I don’t remember the name of the program.

Elizabeth Drake: Okay.

Len Sipes: It specifically dealt with going in and dealing with a parent or parents –

Elizabeth Drake: Yeah.

Len Sipes: Of the person caught up in the criminal justice system.

Elizabeth Drake: Well, and there’s several. I would say in the juvenile system many of those interventions take this sort of multi-systemic approach, multi-systemic therapy, functional family therapy, multi-dimensional treatment foster care. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons why they are so effective is that they’re taking an approach that includes both the youth, the parents, the schools, and it’s a multi-dimensional approach. So several of those programs are on our list and being done here in Washington State.

Len Sipes: Well, but were they right in terms of the fact that they seem to have higher percentage decreases in recidivism than other programs designed for adults?

Elizabeth Drake: I don’t know about design for adults, but definitely compared to other juvenile justice interventions, yes.

Len Sipes: Okay. I mean that’s what I came out of it. I came out of it with most of the adult programs will give you reductions in the 10 to 15% range. And several of the early intervention programs dealing with the mom and dad or just the mom of the juvenile offender caught up in the criminal justice system, oftentimes those were in the 20 and higher percent reduction levels. So it seemed to me just as a layperson, that reading that seems to say that if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, intervene early in the lives of people caught up in the criminal justice system. I know that statement carries baggage because we don’t want to overly involve ourselves in their lives and we want it to be appropriate because we don’t want to start focusing on lower level people, we want to focus on higher level people, but nevertheless the juvenile justice initiatives seemed to have a greater impact than the adult initiatives.

Elizabeth Drake: Right. And I would say that that’s probably true for two reasons. One being that you’re intervening with the youth when they’re in their sort of high crime years, that peak of committing crimes; and over time generally people will tend to age out of crime. So that’s one reason why I think that we see a higher return on our investments for these juvenile justice programs. I think the second reason is that we’re trying to take advantage of what the literature tells us, not only about programs and their effectiveness, most of these studies specifically measure the impact of the intervention on crime. But at the Institute for Public Policy we also look at how outcomes may impact other outcomes.

So for example, what we have found is that when we look at the literature that says that if you can get a youth to graduate from high school they’re less likely to commit crime. And so in our cost-benefit model for those juvenile justice interventions we’re able to monetize that information about high school graduation. And so benefits that are included in those particular programs include not only crime benefits but education benefits from graduating high school.

Len Sipes: Our guest today is Elizabeth Drake; she is a Senior Research Associate for the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. They produce some of the best research and most impactful research, not just for that particular state, but throughout the rest of the country. We follow every report that comes out fairly religiously, is the website. Did I get that correct, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Drake: Yes.

Len Sipes: Now, Elizabeth, I do want to talk to you about the ramifications, the real-world ramifications about doing evidence-based research. All of us talk a good game throughout the United States in terms of doing evidence-based research, in terms of doing best practices research, but Washington State is one of the few states out there that really has embraced it and implemented it. Have you ever gotten any pushback from it? I just talked about juvenile offenders and intervening early in the lives of juveniles and intervening with their parents.

But, again, I mean there’s people out there – as soon as I said that said, “Wait a minute, Leonard, we don’t want to be intervening in the lives of all juveniles.” Most of these people age out. I was reading a Department of Justice report yesterday about how most age out without continuing, without being involved in the criminal justice system. I know the research is very clear that we’re supposed to be focusing on high-risk people, not necessarily low-risk people. Does the process of putting out research and giving all this advice, is it uniformly embraced or does it come with stumbles?

Elizabeth Drake: No. It’s definitely not uniformly embraced. And I think what I would say is that our success in getting our state to use research really hinges upon building relationships with legislators and legislative staff. And I think when we receive an assignment and we can provide information that the legislature can rely upon and know that this is nonpartisan, unbiased information; I think it’s something that we get from both chambers and both parties. It’s helpful to them. And so I think that’s one of the reasons why we can be successful in certain areas and we’ve been particularly successful in corrections, both adult corrections and juvenile justice, but not necessarily in others. And I think it does go back to sort of that grassroots, homegrown, you’re building these relationships over time. So it’s not just an overnight thing.

We’re starting to I would say get more assignments in education. Part of that is hinging upon the fact that our state supreme court ruled last year that the state of Washington was not fully funding basic education. And so now I think that budget decisions are having to be made about how public education is being financed. And so people are starting to use our work a little bit more in education as well. We’ve gotten an assignment with the Initiative 502 that was passed by that state of Washington, our first assignment that we’ve received through an initiative actually for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use and we were named in that initiative to study that implications of legalizing marijuana. And I would say that there are people who are skeptical about who we are and what we’re doing in that particular project. It’s a very long-term project. And it just will take time in building those relationships I think and having people understand what it is that we do exactly.

Len Sipes: But I’ll give you an example. Again, all of us are supposed to be evidence-based practitioners, all of us are supposed to be research-based practitioners. And we like to believe that we here at my organization, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency is that we are best practices based, we are research based. But boot camps, especially for younger offenders, the research says overwhelmingly that they don’t work, yet they remain popular throughout the country. So there seems to be a point where you can say, “Hey, this is the best practice; this is what the research tells us.” And people are going to say, “Well, we don’t care. I like this program. I’m going to move forward with this program.” So there’s always that yin and yang between best practices and state of the art research and what people are actually willing to do.

Elizabeth Drake: Right. Yeah. And I think that that does happen in Washington and I think luckily there are some people who have an understanding that you know, in the juvenile justice system, for example, we got one of our very first assignments looking at a supervision probation program that you know, the claim was that it worked and we did an evaluation of it and found out that it didn’t work. I think, you know, we were fortunate in that many of the juvenile court administrators at that time said, “Well, you know, if this doesn’t work, we have, it’s incumbent upon us to provide to our clients something that does work.” And so they – they have a good attitude about it and you know, and I think that that’s what led to the systematic review of, “Okay, well what does work for use in the juvenile justice system?”

You know, it’s not always that way with everything that we do and sometimes you know, there are lots of times that people don‘t necessarily use the research that we come up with and you know, eventually, maybe sometimes it just takes time for those things to happen.

Len Sipes: And there’s always the inevitable argument. Okay, so it reduces recidivism by 10 to 15%, and different people are going to come along and go, “Well, Leonard, that’s really not a lot.” So you can say it’s effective and you can say it’s cost effective, and you can say it will return $4.00 for every dollar invested, but you know, a 10 to 15% reduction in recidivism is not grand and glorious, so you have to deal with the fact that, okay, it is effective, but it’s not super effective. Do you know where I’m coming from?

Elizabeth Drake: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I think our response to that is that, you know, crime is expensive, and so even a small reduction in crime, percentage reduction in crime can yield big taxpayer benefits. But you know, on the flip side, what I would say too is there’s just, you know, one thing that we’re looking at and that’s a reduction in recidivism. Sometimes there are programs or policies that exist out there for – they have different goals or different purposes and one of them, you know, can be punishment, for example. And so we’re just speaking to – in those instances, we’re just speaking to recidivism.

You know, sometimes you might have – for example we did an evaluation looking at earned early release from prison and found that the people who did not get earned early release were eligible for it, that they actually did better when they were eligible for earned early release but you know, the governor wasn’t, at that time wasn’t interested in expanding earned early release [INDISCERNIBLE 00:25:45] time.

Len Sipes: Understood. And you know, when I say 10 to 15%, don’t get me wrong, 10 to 15% could save a state billions of dollars over time and could reduce rates of crime by the thousands. So a 10 to 15% reduction is certainly worthy of anybody’s consideration. It’s just that I hear from different people, “Oh, Leonard, it’s only 10 or 15%.” And I just wanted to get your thoughts on that. So we only have a couple minutes left in the program. It’s going by like wildfire, a lot quicker than I would want it to. The lessons learned in all of this – what lessons do you have for the rest of us who want to invest in state of the art practices, research based practices, best practices?

Elizabeth Drake: You know, I think some of our lessons, biggest lessons learned you already touched on building relationships and that’s a big one. Another one of our lessons, I think big lessons learned is that quality assurance matters and we found that out the hard way. You know, I think that knowing what works is the first step, and then implementing it and implementing those programs with fidelity is a whole ‘nother thing.

Len Sipes: Sure.

Elizabeth Drake: So we had, you know, found several programs in the juvenile justice system that were effective at reducing crime, implemented those programs here in Washington, did our own outcome evaluation to follow up with those programs, to see and actually sound that when therapists were not delivering the program with fidelity to the model that those kids were actually worse off than the kids who did not participate in the intervention at all. And so the juvenile courts then implemented a state-wide quality assurance for, I think it’s four or five different programs and it’s now being done. So that I would say is one of the biggest lessons learned. The State Department of Corrections is also now implementing quality assurance for several of their programs as well.

Len Sipes: We can do – we within the criminal justice system can do damage. I mean, I have seen research out there that has, that where programs have made recidivism worse, not better. So if they’re not implemented properly and if we don’t follow best practices, we can do more harm than good.

Elizabeth Drake: Sure, yeah. Absolutely. And I think that that’s, you know, one of the important things about doing outcome evaluations, especially when you’re relying on these systematic reviews then I think it’s a good idea to go back in and do an outcome evaluation here, you know, in Washington, once we’ve implemented the program to see whether or not we’re getting the results that we expect.

Len Sipes: And you know how interesting and how different that is from the experience in most states? You do an exhaustive review as to what’s happening throughout the country, an exhaustive review as to what’s happening in the state, you measure it, you provide the results, you do the benefit-cost analysis, you make these recommendations and then you follow up and do your own research to see if the program was implemented properly. That is the state of the art.

Elizabeth Drake: Yeah, I think it is. Yeah.

Len Sipes: And that’s unusual, in a lot of states.

Elizabeth Drake: Yeah, it seems to me as though it is unusual. You know, we have – we have a project that we’re working on right now – we’ve –

Len Sipes: We have about 15 seconds.

Elizabeth Drake: Oh sure. It’s funding from the Pew Center for the States and we are partnering with about, I think it’s 14 other states out there and I think that that’s what our colleagues at Pew Center for the States would also say is that, you know, in their experience, that this is not something that everybody’s doing, but seems like a really good idea.

Len Sipes: And we’re really remiss in terms of all the programs that I mentioned before, who have done a great job in terms of communicating with the public – Pew is certainly one. Our guest today has been Elizabeth Drake, a senior research associate for the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. We talked about the wonderful job this organization has done over the last two decades in terms of analyzing criminal justice as well as public policy. And to provide guidance, not just to the State of Washington, but to the rest of us. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety, we really appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have yourselves a pleasant day.

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