Evidence Based Community Corrections-Joan Petersilia-DC Public Safety Radio

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2013/05/evidence-based-community-corrections-joan-petersilia-dc-public-safety-radio/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very proud to bring you Dr. Joan Petersilia. She is in essence one of the best-known and best-respected criminologists in the United States. I’ll quickly read her background from the website there at Stanford.  Dr. Joan Petersilia has spent more than 25 years studying the performance of U.S. criminal justice agencies and has been instrumental in effecting sentencing and corrections reform in California and throughout the United States. She is the author of 11 books about crime and public policy, and her research on parole reform, prisoner reintegration, and sentencing policy has fueled changes in policies throughout the nation. A criminologist with a background in empirical research and social science, Dr. Petersilia is also a faculty co-director for the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, focusing on policies related to crime control, sentencing, and corrections, and developing non-partisan analysis for recommendations intended to aid public officials, legal practitioners, and the public in understanding criminal justice policy in the state and national levels, and like I said, in essence one of the best-known and most-respected criminologists in the United States. Dr. Joan Petersilia, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Dr. Joan Petersilia: My pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Len Sipes: I am just absolutely thrilled to have you before our microphones. I want to start off with the quote. Now, I saw this in terms of the National Institute of Justice speech that you gave, and I’m reading from a document, and I’ll read from this, and then I promise the entire program will go over to you. Let me read a quote, “There’s a long history of over-promising and under-delivering that has contributed to the constant pendulum swings in punishment practices. There is nothing in our history of over 100 years of reform that says that we know how to reduce recidivism by more than 15% to 20%. To achieve those rather modest outcomes, you have to get everything right. The right staff delivering the right programs at the right time in the offender’s life, and in a supportive community environment, and we have to be honest about that. – And my sense is that we have not been publicly forthcoming because we’ve assumed that we would not win public support with modest results.” Joan, can we start off with that quote and get a sense as to why you wanted to say what you said?

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Well, I’ve been around the criminal justice policy world since the 1970s, and, in the 1980s, 1990s, and now 2000 and the next decade, we have seen these huge shifts in terms of endorsing tough-on-crime and building up prisons or endorsing probation and community alternatives, and we just seem to go back-and-forth and back-and-forth. And I know that I think most of us, and in fact most of us in the public but certainly, I think, your listeners, practitioners, academics favor non-incarceration if at all possible. And so, you know, we’re kind of trying to get there. We’re trying to get evidence and public opinion to support the notion of community corrections but when I say we over-promise and we under-deliver, that’s really what I’m talking about, but I’m also talking about we over-promise and under-deliver in terms of the impacts of prison. So I think for both sides of the coin, if you think about the coin being this pendulum swing – community corrections, soft-on-crime versus prisons, tough-on-crime – we just simply go back-and-forth because we don’t really have solid evidence that would allow us to choose one option over the other. And so I think, you know, my hope, and I think we’re really primed to deliver a decade now, which can be different. You know, I think about the decarceration period, which we’re now going through, and we are at a space in U.S. crime policy which, literally, we have not been in ever, where we are closing prisons. We’re reducing prison budgets. We’re reducing incarceration populations at all levels, and we’re discharging probationers and parolees in some instances. So we are downsizing correctional control at all levels, and that’s an amazing story to tell, and I don’t think that most people who aren’t involved in criminal justice realize that that is now a major policy change that we’re having. And the question for us who care about this issue is will we be able to keep the population down or will we simply have another pendulum swing when all those people we have decarcerated, decriminalized, discharged, etcetera, don’t behave well?  And so how can we set the stage – and this to me is the $64,000 question for all of us in crime control policy – how can we do better this time around so that pendulum does in fact not swing back to the kind of building-up of prison capacity that we saw when we tried this exact same experiment in the 1980s?

Len Sipes: I talk to a lot of criminal justice practitioners, Joan, and they remain a bit frustrated. What they’re saying is that we hear from the research community a lot of different things about what it is we should be doing. Number one, we really don’t have the money to do all the different things that people are asking us to do. Number two, the research seems to be murky; it doesn’t seem to be crystal clear, and sometimes the folks in the academic community are a bit more, they come from advocacy more than they do research.  And so they feel comfortable with where we are regarding re-entry. They want re-entry to work. They want people who are released from the prison system to succeed. Everybody seems to be dedicated to that but different people are coming along and saying, and some states have said, “We’re getting 30% reductions, 35% reductions, 50% reductions,” and then they back off those statements. So the practitioner community is confused by the lack of guidance and the lack of clarity in terms of what works, what doesn’t work, what is meant by evidence-based, and how you implement that. That gets to the heart and soul of your over-promising and under-delivering continuum, correct?

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Yes, and I actually think they have every right to be confused. If you ask the question, which is what they’re asking, is what works and what can the research offer them in terms of program design in order to get what works, and this is really complicated because the research community offers a number of things. What we often hear about is kind of the risk-responsivity program, you know, kind of the evidence-based corrections, which is driven from a psychological model.  Let me just state that what it basically tells people to do is in a risk assessment, it is an individual approach which highlights cognitive or therapeutic approaches. It is a psychological model. Now that model actually is one way of doing things, and certainly, as we know from the literature, that might work with some people particularly who are moderate and high-risk individuals, and that we get some. There are some re-entry programs and there are some good programs that do that. That individualized model is very, very expensive and so when we tell practitioners to take that individualized, which is really therapeutic model. It is an individual, psychological, counseling-based model, highly expensive. – And not only is that not appropriate for many offenders, it also is not, in some ways, the kinds of models that also practitioners believe really work.  And let me contrast it with a community-based model which I think doesn’t get nearly, because it’s so difficult to evaluate, but I think it doesn’t get nearly the kind of respect that it should, and I’m talking about the programs that I actually have seen work in my own 30 plus years. It involves much more than just an individual probation officer speaking with a probationer. It involves getting those community-based organizations to be the effective hand-off or collaborator to effective interventions, and I think what we do when we sell the cognitive behavioral approach and the evidence-based approach, we’re forgetting what I think academics have proven time and time again is that formal social control, such as that a probationer or parole agent can do, is probably only the jumpstart of real reform for an individual.  It’s going to take connecting that person eventually with family, churches, work, housing, and of course that individual counseling model doesn’t really get to any of those additional things, which are life skills. You know, at some level, they do. They talk to the person about motivational therapy, and they try to get him confident and all of that, or her.

Len Sipes: Right. Making the right decisions.

Dr. Joan Petersilia: But it’s just not enough, and I think that’s the frustration that practitioners often feel. They know that these community-based programs are often some of the best programs they operate. They’re very expensive. There’s actually very little data because, as I said, it’s very hard to evaluate, but I think that’s the frustration. In their heart they know one type of program works and yet what they’re being told is kind of evidence-based, is this much more narrow but easy-to-evaluate programs, and I think there’s a tension there.

Len Sipes: Though some people have said that, “Look, I was told that evidence-based was drug test everybody and now we’re drug-testing all of these offenders at the lower level and we’re bringing them back into the criminal justice system but they don’t pose a risk to public safety, but we were told that drug testing everybody was evidence-based.” They will say that, “We’re told to get people into programs in the community but the programs in the community are being cut, and we’re told to work on a collaborative basis,” and I believe that. I mean, I thoroughly believe that it should be done on a collaborative basis with community organizations, but community organizations are stretched to the limit.  So that leaves practitioners with a sense of what truly is evidence-based and what isn’t, and certainly there’s a certain point where, to do these well, these programs should be funded and funded in such a way that we control the budget so we can make sure that we get the biggest bang for our buck because if they’re turning them over to a local community-based organization, they’re basically ceding control of that individual to the community-based organization, and so when they go out and commit a robbery or a homicide, and people start pointing fingers at the criminal justice system, they can say, “Well, we simply don’t have the money to do this as comprehensively as we would like.” Again, the frustration.

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Well, and I think it even has another aspect that we’re going to see for the first time that I think we have never seen in that the pressure to actually discharge. So now, if you don’t want that responsibility, I think you’re absolutely right. Nobody believes that they are investing in exactly the kinds of programs that would lead to long-term success, these kind of broad-based, community-based initiatives, so what they often can invest in is kind of these much more narrow programs, and I’m not sure that they even think they have the money to invest in those.  So I’m seeing at least here in California, and I think this is happening elsewhere, because of the budget crisis, we are discharging people much faster, and part of us are thinking, “Well, that’s a good thing.” I think, personally, we over-expanded who we put on probation and parole, etcetera, and we kept people involved in community corrections for perhaps longer than they needed to be but now we’re doing exactly the opposite, and because the state doesn’t want to be responsible for them and doesn’t have the money to really provide them the services that they know they need, the best way they can do to not be responsible is to simply discharge somebody.  Let me just give you an example for California that I don’t think that maybe your readers have realized but in California, in just the last 18 months, our prison population – average daily prison population – has declined by 25,000, and since 2007, we’ve actually reduced our prison population by 42,000.

Len Sipes: That’s amazing.

Dr. Joan Petersilia: 42,000 people that were in prison just in 2007 are not in prison, and on parole, the decline has even been more dramatic. Just in the last 18 months, we’ve down-sized our prison population by two-thirds. We used to have 120,000 people on parole in California; today we have about 60,000. The question is, and many people are celebrating this huge decline, but the question I ask myself, as somebody who really celebrated the pressure for decline, is where have all those individuals gone? And many of them are now discharged.  We used to discharge people at 3 years. We’re now discharging parolees at 6 months, and I’m now getting calls from parolees who ask a question I never thought I would ever hear which is, “How do I get back on supervision because I really need those services.” And I don’t think any of us who were advocates for the decline of kind of government and correctional control understood that that wasn’t the endgame. The endgame was not to simply downsize without services. It was to downsize with a plan, and I think that there is some problem with the academic community because I think that some of us were advocating the downsizing of prisons as if that was the endgame, and I think it’s not.

Len Sipes: You’ve called it the biggest penal experiment in modern history in terms of a recent article. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re more than halfway through the program. Dr. Joan Petersilia is before our microphones, and she is an Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law there at Stanford University. She is a faculty Co-Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, and again, as I summarized at the beginning of the program, one of the most respected criminologists in the United States.  Joan, here’s my fear. My fear is that there are elements there within California that are now contesting what California calls realignment that has just as many implications for parole and probation as it does for mainstream corrections as it does for jails. Now they’re beginning to say that what’s happening is beginning to add to the crime problem in California, which is at historic lows, and so the fear that I have is that because we over-promise sometimes in terms of what we can do and in terms of community corrections, that individuals will be caught up in crime, the crimes will be extraordinarily well-publicized, and somebody will come along and reverse all of this, and then the pendulum will swing, as you said, in terms of your comment, in terms of over-promising and under-delivering, that the pendulum will swing and will go back in the opposite direction and this wonderful opportunity to provide services, although services are being provided, that’s part of the budget there in California, but the question is are they being provided systematically? Are they using evidence-based practices? Are they doing enough to make sure that they’re reducing recidivism by as much as humanly possible? Those are a lot of issues, and much depends upon it because some people say as California goes, the rest of the country goes.

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Well, I do think you’re right in that we are running here in California the biggest criminal justice experiment, I think, that has ever been undertaken in this country, and part of what makes it so unique is that California has invested, already in just the last 18 months, invested $2 billion in terms of giving communities discretion about how to use their criminal justice dollars. So the state basically put out funding with a formula, depending on how many people you would have sent to prison prior to this realignment law, and they sent the county a check, and they basically said, “We want you to use this on evidence-based corrections but we trust the local community enough to you decide what program would best work. So we’re sending you the check and we’re now closing the doors. You can’t send this certain class of prisoner who would have gone to prison historically – the door is shut.” Over 500 felonies in California were changed as a result of realignment, where they used to go to prison and now the maximum penalty for those 500 crimes is a jail sentence.

Len Sipes: A jail sentence of six months?

Dr. Joan Petersilia: A jail sentence of up to one year with time served will equal six months, and so counties were said, “You can send them all to jail if you want, and if you can afford the capacity and if you have the capacity, or we’re giving you money to invest in community-based alternatives.” We’ve got 58 counties here in California that are running every experiment imaginable. Some are investing in expanding their jail capacity. Some are investing in electronic monitoring. Some are doing day reporting center. Basically $2 billion being spent over just 18 months, and it will continue, and it’s now constitutionally-guaranteed. That money will now, it’s in our state constitution, will fund this community-based experiment. Counties, I think the first year, honestly, I think it was too much, too fast. We here at Stanford have four grants to look at the impact of this realignment experiment across California, and what I’m really noticing, after the first year, which honestly I thought really was – the counties were just unprepared, and their first knee-jerk reaction was to send everybody that used to go to prison, just send them to jail. Now, they’re starting to actually do some really important and interesting experiments. They’re funding non-profits; they’re bringing in sheriffs.  One of the most interesting things that I’m observing in California is that sheriffs are taking the lead for community corrections. They are starting to operate their own programs. They’re working closely with probation and parole. They are becoming the spokesmen for an effective community-based correction. And what we saw in the last intermediate sanctions movement which was kind of in the 1980s and 1990s which I wrote about in those periods; about kind of what did we learn from that whole decade?  The one thing we learned is that community corrections didn’t have a really credible spokesperson. Nobody kind of believed or took seriously what a probation chief said because they were seen as too pro-offender. But you’ve got the sheriff saying the exact same thing in many of these counties now, and now people are listening, and I think that is going to be the real promise in some of our counties where they are really trying some of, I think, the most innovative things we will see, and of course our evaluation which will continue for the next several years will try to highlight some of these best practices that we will in fact see as California does this downsizing.

Len Sipes: Whether people within the practitioner community throughout the rest of the country or the general public realize it or not, the biggest correctional experiment in this country’s history, possibly one of the biggest correctional experiments that the world has known, is currently happening right now in California. So the bottom line is that there is a consensus, correct, that done correctly, somewhere between 10% and 20% is what we can expect in terms of the reduction of recidivism, of people coming back to the criminal justice system. That does seem to be a consensus amongst the criminological community, correct?

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Yes, that is definitely a consensus, and we need to make everyone know that because we’re setting programs up for failure when we say that recidivism can be reduced by 50%, per se. Never in the history of corrections, here in the United States or anywhere, has recidivism ever been reduced in a serious population by 50%, so right off the bat we’re making false promises, and we will never be able to deliver. So I think one of the first things we can do with radio shows like this is set our expectations at a realistic level.

Len Sipes: Now, what we can do in terms of the provision of evidence-based practices plus with good evaluations to really hammer away at what works and what doesn’t work, there is the possibility of increasing it beyond 20% but it’s not going to be 50%, it’s not going to be 40%. We can tweak it and get it above 20%, done well and rigorously evaluated, correct?

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Correct, and the other big thing is who are you dealing with, and so people also, it’s not just the program element; it’s what’s the target population. We’re talking about youth, first offenders, adult probationers, adult felons, adult parolees, they all represent quite different populations and they’re harder to treat and harder to get those large reductions in recidivism. So those two things together – it’s not just the program model and the community it’s all about, but we’ve got to overlay that with what’s the target population.

Len Sipes: Part of the discussion on the target population and what is evidence-base is that there is a segment of that population that we shouldn’t bother with at all. Bringing them into the criminal justice system, my example a little while ago of drug testing everybody, bringing them back into the criminal justice system serves no purpose. If you use an objective risk instrument, which I understand is certainly not perfect, but an objective risk instrument, if they score in the lower categories, then maybe we should not be interacting with them vigorously at all to marshal whatever resources we have to look at higher-risk offenders. Are we correct or incorrect?

Dr. Joan Petersilia: We’re very correct at that, and one of the things that we now do that I think has been the biggest advance in the last 10 years in criminology is solid, good, risk-prediction instruments. If we have just one more moment, I’d like to make what I think is an important point —

Len Sipes: Please.

Dr. Joan Petersilia:  — on this evidence-based – you know, we’re all wanting evidence-based programs, and in fact in our California realignment legislation, it says people should be funding with these dollars evidence-based corrections. What is a practitioner to do? Where are they to find what are programs that are evidence-based? It’s the definition of evidence-based that I also think confuses practitioners, and if we don’t have a body of evidence that shows a program works, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It simply means we haven’t an evaluation that shows that it works.

And let me say this again because I think people will go up to crimesolutions.org or any of the websites that have a listing of programs that have been show in the past through rigorous evaluation to reduce recidivism, but 99% of all programs in criminal justice that we are doing today or have done historically have ever been subject to re-evaluation, to any evaluation, and so I think this is also the frustration with practitioners. They say, “Well, my program, the ones that I know work best, aren’t on that approved list of programs.”  And so if you in fact say that you have to fund programs that are on that approved list, you’re only picking from like 1% of programs that just happen to have an evaluation attached to them, and we know that funding for drug program treatments has always been the most evaluated program because they get major sources of funding from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, so the regular garden-variety, criminal justice intervention doesn’t show up often in those lists of evidence-based programs.

Len Sipes: But that’s what confuses them because the Washington State Public Policy Institute, I always screw that up, came along with an overview of substance abuse programs within the criminal justice system. They gave recidivism reduction rates of reductions of 4% to 9%. So that’s, again, what they’re saying, “Well, gee, where are the big reductions?” So that’s the confusion. Is there a point where people within the criminological community of your stature need to come together and lay out specific guidelines for the rest of us in terms of how we should be proceeding?

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Well, I think that would certainly, you know, I could imagine that helping. What I do in my own world here, and I think what the research community needs to do, is pick a state, pick a county, pick a location. I think that this stuff is so complicated that I’ve now, for at least the last five to seven years, focused solely on helping California, and I think that the research community cannot really speak as one voice because across the states we have different sentencing structures. We have different prisons. Certainly some prisons are therapeutic in themselves, have a lot of programming, some have re-entry. The communities that greet people are different. Everything is so, you know, we don’t have a national system of sentencing and corrections so it’s very hard for any national body, I think, to speak truth to power, if you will, because unless you know that system and the details of that system, you’re just talking at generalities.  So my hope is that academics who care about this issue will attach themselves to kind of their own local situation, and particularly I think where the game is now for academics is in-state legislatures. They need help. They’re facing budget crisis. They want crime solutions. We need to be much more forceful at getting what we know to those people who have to pass legislation, have to understand what do we mean by evidence-based, and then we have to attach evaluations to kind of legislation that gets passed, and so that would be my wish.

Len Sipes: For the final minute of the program, I’ll give one example. A practitioner comes to me and says, “Alright, I understand that objective risk instruments would certainly help us figure out who to deliver services to. What is the best objective risk instrument out there?” My response: “I have no idea.”

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Well, there are some excellent risk assessment tools. There are several. I also think that no risk assessment tool, unless validated with your population, is going to be sufficient.

Len Sipes: Agreed, but my only point was that neither one of us knew where to go for that list of objective risk instruments so he could begin his assessment.

Dr. Joan Petersilia: Hmm. Hmm. Well, I don’t want to endorse any particular, because now they’re all proprietary. That’s the other thing is that now you have to pay an arm and a leg, and what I would tell people is yes, there are some well-known that now everybody uses but I tell people here in California —

Len Sipes: About 30 seconds.

Dr. Joan Petersilia:  — until it’s validated on a California population, I wouldn’t trust it.

Len Sipes: I hear you. Dr. Petersilia, you have got the final word. Joan Petersilia, ladies and gentlemen, has been our guest today. It’s been a real honor, again, one of the best-known and respected criminologists in the country. www.law.stanford.edu. www.law.stanford.edu.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We really do appreciate all the comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and we want you to have yourselves a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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