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Interview with Edward Latessa, Ph.D. — Solutions in Corrections: Using Evidence-Based Knowledge

This interview followed the presentation "Solutions in Corrections: Using Evidence-Based Knowledge" given as part of NIJ's Research for the Real World Seminar Series Edward Latessa, Ph.D., Director, School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati.

Key Principles of Reducing Recidivism

Edward Latessa: There is actually a very large, significant body of research out there that tells us that we can indeed reduce recidivism rates, in fact, often quite significantly with an offender population. The key, of course, is to follow some principles that have been delineated over probably the past 20 or 25 years, the first of which is that we have to focus on those individuals that are most likely to recidivate — those individuals that are going to continue their criminal conduct. Second, we have to address what we refer to as criminogenic needs — those areas that are correlated with criminal conduct in things such as substance abuse and antisocial peer associations and so forth. The third element is that we have to teach them new ways to behave. We do this through practicing risky situations for them, trying to teach them how to handle some of the events in their life, the situations that they get into. If we put these together, studies have shown that we can indeed have significant effects on criminal conduct. Of course we have to do it all reasonably well. We have to do it with some fidelity. But if we do, I think research has demonstrated that we can, in fact, have appreciable effects on criminal conduct.

[End of video clip]

Using Resources to Reduce Recidivism – Learning from Past Programs

Edward Latessa: I think it's important to not only talk about the interventions and the strategies and the programs that have worked in changing offender behavior. But I also think it's important to look at those approaches that have not been successful. One reason, of course, is to not repeat the mistakes that we've made in the past. We have limited resources. We can only do so many programs, can only work with so many individuals, and we don't want to spend those resources on interventions and techniques that have in some cases not shown any effect, in some cases have actually shown to be harmful. In terms of correctional interventions we see, you know, the kind of punishing smarter approaches, intensive supervision without treatment, military-style boot camps, even things like talk therapy. Those kind of approaches have not demonstrated effects in research and in studies. In my opinion, we have to make sure that people understand that they don't work, and we have to tell them why they don't work. If not, we're doomed to keep making the same mistake over and over again.

[End of video clip]

Criminal Risk Assessment

Edward Latessa: The concept of risk assessment is one that we use in a number of areas of life. Insurance companies make a determination of the risk of an illness or the risk of an accident. Companies do risk assessment when they bring out new products. And so risk assessment for criminal behavior, which is extremely important, helps policymakers, decision-makers, practitioners with some determination as to what is the probability that this individual will continue their antisocial behavior. More importantly today, it also can help tell us why and what we need to address. So risk, while not a perfect science, can give us 70, 75 percent chances of prediction, which are much better, if you think about it, than simply flipping a coin, which is a 50 percent probability.

And so if I'm working with an offender, the first question I want to know is, "What are the chances that this person is going to continue to do what he did?" The second question might be, "Well what areas of his life, if I address them and work with him on, can help reduce those probabilities?"

We want to put our resources onto those people most likely to continue their behavior. Simple way to think about it is, if half of the people coming out of prison never go back again, which half are we worried about? We're focusing on, in this case, the ones that will go back. Unfortunately the research also shows that when we put our energies into low-risk offenders, we can in fact increase their failure rates. We believe there's two reasons for this. One is that we are disrupting what makes them low risk by disrupting their pro-social networks. If they're put in intensive programs they often lose their jobs, and their family has stress, and their friends don't want to hang around with them and so forth. But we're also exposing them to higher risk individuals, and the social learning in this case is often antisocial. And so this is one of the fundamental, fundamental principles on which evidence-based practices are based in corrections.

[End of video clip]

Research Informs Expertise

Edward Latessa: One of my observations about crime and criminal justice and criminal behavior is that everyone really believes they're an expert. I mean, you stop and think about it, you know, if you were an astrophysicist, for example, I doubt if many people would tell you how to do your job. But when you do work in the criminal justice system, you're often told by friends and relatives and others what we should be doing, whether it's bring back prayer in school, or simply make it tougher on them, or fix their families. We're inundated with advice about what we ought to be doing to fix criminal behavior. In fact I think it's important here, very important here, that we look at the research in terms of what it tells us about those major risk factors because when we address areas of an offender's life that are not highly correlated with their criminal conduct, our effects are what you expect. You may produce happier offenders, better adjusted offenders, offenders that know how to recreate, but we don't reduce their criminal conduct.

[End of video clip]

Program Fidelity and Program Integrity

Edward Latessa: When we look at programs and program fidelity, we assess a program. In some ways it's similar to assessing an offender. When you sit down with an offender to assess them, you're looking at their criminal history; you're looking at their family, their substance abuse, who they hang around with, the mental health issues. These are the domains that you ask questions around, that you collect information on. Very similar when we look at a program. The things we look at, for example, is things such as organizational responsivity. Is it an organization that's prepared to change? Do they in fact have leadership? Staff that are qualified, committed, well trained, supervised? We look of course at assessment. How do they assess offenders? How do they sort them out? Do they in fact focus on higher risk? Do they give more services to higher risk? We look at treatment. What model do they use? How do they deliver the program? Is the dosage of intervention sufficient? Do they work with offenders to practice and rehearse those difficult areas of their life? We look at aftercare, whether it's provided or not, how it's provided. How offenders complete a program. Is it simply based on time, or is it based on some criteria of performance? We look at quality assurance. How does the program monitor quality? Do they audit files? Do they in fact look at offender performance after they've left the program? And so these are the domains we assess when we go in and look at a correctional program to help give them direction to improve what they're doing so that hopefully they can in fact change offender behavior.

Almost anything we do in life requires some effort. It requires us to do it fairly well, if you think about it. If your mechanic fixes your car, you want some competency there. You want someone that knows what he's doing, knows what parts to replace, knows when it's running well. It's certainly true in correctional programs. I have not seen any program, regardless of its model, that cannot maintain fidelity that has been effective. But when we talk about program fidelity, it's more than simply efficiency. It's more than simply doing what you said you were going to do. It's having integrity around the principles that I often talk about. That is, I have been to programs, for example, boot camps that are extremely well run. They're extremely committed, yet they're never going to produce the kind of effects, the reductions in recidivism, that we hope for. So it's this combination of program integrity and program fidelity. We have to follow the research, and then we have to make sure the program is being implemented, the staff are trained, they're competent, that there's leadership, that offenders are being assessed, that we're preparing them for leaving the program. Bringing those together, doing them well, will produce the kind of effects that we hope for.

[End of video clip]

Improving Correctional Interventions

Edward Latessa: To change someone's behavior — and by the way, that's not an easy thing to do; think about yourself and how difficult it is to change our own behavior: to lose weight or to exercise more, to spend more time with our family — it's very difficult. But what we know is that the process for changing one's behavior includes modeling, that is teaching someone how to behave in a certain way just as you might do with your children, practicing with them, giving them an opportunity to do it on their own, correcting them when they make mistakes, which they invariably will, and having them do it in as real a situation as possible versus, what, talk? People don't change because they hear a speech. They change because they learn how to behave. Unfortunately offenders have often learned antisocial behavior. You get a lot of reinforcement from it. It's what they fall back on when they get into the difficult situations. And so to change someone's behavior, we have to first change their thinking about that behavior. But then we have to give them the skills they need to be able to follow through. It's not enough to want to do it. You have to know how to do it, and putting that together helps make correctional interventions a lot more effective.

[End of video clip]

Correctional Practitioners as "Agents of Change"

Edward Latessa: For many years my work has focused on offenders — assessing risk, for example — and on programs, how to design more effective correctional programs. And the piece that's often been missing has been the skills and the competencies that correctional staff — particularly probation officers, parole officers, case workers — need to be agents of change. What we have found is that, in interacting with offenders, many times probation and parole officers continue to focus on conditions. They focus on kind of this fear that "if you don't do what I tell you to do" kind of mentality in part because they don't know how to work with an offender in a different way. They simply don't have the skills. And so we have been working to develop some new training in which we are trying to teach probation and parole officers in particular new ways to interact with offenders, how to teach the offender problem-solving skills, how to teach the offender to recognize the thought-behavior link that often accompanies their behavior, how to take that short session that they have with the offender and to be much more productive. For example, one of the things we find is that the more things they talk about, the less effective they are. So simply focusing on one problem area at a time and working with that offender on that particular area is a lot more successful than trying to cover eight or nine things during a 10-minute session. So I think this work, if we can put this together with better designed, more effective programs, we can see some substantive reductions in recidivism.

[End of video clip]

This interview followed the presentation "Solutions in Corrections: Using Evidence-Based Knowledge" given as part of NIJ's Research for the Real World Seminar Series Edward Latessa, Ph.D., Director, School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati.

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  • Playlist of the complete seven-part interview "Solutions in Corrections: Using Evidence-Based Knowledge"
  • Segment 1: Key Principles of Reducing Recidivism (01:42)
  • Segment 2: Using Resources to Reduce Recidivism - Learning from Past Programs (01:34)
  • Segment 3: Criminal Risk Assessment (02:42)
  • Segment 4: Research Informs Expertise (01:24)
  • Segment 5: Program Fidelity and Program Integrity (03:41)
  • Segment 6: Improving Correctional Interventions (01:35)
  • Segment 7: Correctional Practitioners as "Agents of Change" (02:01)

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NIJ Research for the Real World Seminar
May 2010
Edward Latessa, Professor, University of Cincinnati

Professor Ed Latessa describes how his team and he assessed more than 550 programs and saw the best and the worst. Professor Latessa shared his lessons learned and examples of states that are trying to use evidence-based knowledge to improve correctional programs.
We also captured an interview with Dr. Latessa in which he discussed this topic in seven short segments:

  • Key Principles of Reducing Recidivism
  • Using Resources to Reduce Recidivism — Learning from Past Programs
  • Criminal Risk Assessment
  • Research Informs Expertise
  • Program Fidelity and Program Integrity
  • Improving Correctional Interventions
  • Correctional Practitioners as "Agents of Change"

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Date created: May 28, 2010