The most effective way to prevent incarcerated criminals from reoffending is through programs focusing on changing behaviors, a national expert on criminal justice reform said Wednesday.
Ed Latessa, director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, said most research shows punishment alone doesn't reduce recidivism, and not all programs designed to help are useful, either.
They aren't one-size-fits-all programs, and include cognitive behavioral approaches and teaching new behaviors.
The event was presented by House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, and The Council of State Governments as a part of The Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The initiative is a process for state leaders and criminal justice professionals to analyze Oklahoma's criminal justice system data and identify strategies to reduce costs and increase public safety.
Focusing on now
“The most effective interventions are behavioral ... that focus on current problems, not the past,” Latessa said. “We can't change the past.”
Effective programs attack risk factors for recidivism such as pro-criminal or anti-social attitudes, values and beliefs that have them reject authority, convention and the value of others.
Emotional states like rage, anger, defiance and criminal identity are also risk factors.
“Taking drug offenders and educating them about drugs, it's really a dumb idea when you think about it,” he said. “Talk therapy ... getting them in a circle and asking them about what they want to talk about isn't effective in changing their behavior either.”
Latessa said offenders who are impulsive, pleasure seeking and who lack positive social influences need to be taught how to manage this.
Criminal and psychological problems tracing back to offenders' families can also put them at a higher risk for returning to jail. So can low education or financial achievement.
Substance abuse and mental illness also can increase the likelihood a person will return to jail. Neither can be treated alone because there are typically other risk factors that run with them.
If you toss a drug addict back on the street, he's going to return to his old life and friends and will likely start reusing, Latessa said. They must have positive social interaction in their lives and learn behaviorally how to cope with these risks.
It's not a simple task to assess these factors, Latessa said. It's important to target those with the highest likelihood of recidivism and provide them the most intensive treatment. Lobbing low-risk offenders in with high risk ones can actually increase recidivism rates.
Good programs teach offenders new ways to behave and new skills that allow them to be successful outside of prison.
Oklahoma Corrections Department Director Justin Jones said legislators are doing the right thing listening to experts, analyzing data and looking for ways to reform the packed and expensive state corrections system.
Often, research on criminal justice research and reform is contentious because of politics and emotion, Jones said. He's hopeful key stakeholders will look at the empirical data and make decisions based on that.
“The timing is right for this,” he said. “The judiciary is at the table, the district attorneys are at the table, and I'm excited the leadership at the Capitol has decided to take this on.”
Taking drug offenders and educating them about drugs, it's really a dumb idea when you think about it.”