KU study shows corrections agencies need to believe in criminal justice reform measures for them to work

(University of Kansas)
Published: Apr. 27, 2021 at 4:00 PM CDT
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - A recent study from the University of Kansas shows for true criminal justice reform to work, those who implement it need to believe that it is legitimate.

The University of Kansas says researchers often work alongside the criminal justice system to bring about reform by bringing them the latest data that shows why a specific practice helps improve outcomes. It said new research shows if community corrections agencies want to sustain evidence-based reform, they need to see them as legitimate.

According to KU, researchers worked with eight federal community corrections agencies to start Contingency Management, which is an evidence-based practice used to help those convicted of drug offenses set and achieve goals to end addiction, avoid repeat offenses and increase pro-social behavior. It said such practices and reforms are often put in place across the criminal justice system.

“We’ve seen millions of dollars spent by institutions on evidence-based practices in community corrections settings, but there is very little research on if the reforms stick after researchers leave,” said Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs & administration at KU and co-author of the study. “We followed up after our original study with community corrections agencies, and we found reform only sticks when staff viewed the reform as legitimate. It is not enough to show that reforms are effective or efficient. Workers must view them as legitimate and aligned with their organization’s goals.”

KU said the study was co-written with Danielle Rudes and Faye Taxman of George Mason University and was published in the British Journal of Criminology.

According to the University, the researchers returned to eight community correction locations five years after starting Contingency Management. While every site saw the practice as legitimate enough to consider adoption, it said two sites never adopted the practice, four experimented with it and two continued to use the practice after the study ended. It said the team evaluated the legitimacy of the reform on three levels: Pragmatic, if staff recognized the practice could fit with the site routes and operations, moral, if it was viewed as the right thing to do to help clients, and cognitive, if they could understand how reform was different from current practices and was a change in behaviors that could fit their agency.

KU said the results found that sites that sustained Contingency Management rated it moderately or strongly in all three areas, but that it had to be seen strongly in terms of cognitive legitimacy. It said sites that did not sustain the practice gave various reasons for scoring it lower, such as not using the software provided to keep track of data and instead logging it manually and reporting it, resulting in a low score in pragmatic legitimacy. It said leadership was a major factor in the implementation of the reform, but could not make others view it as legitimate just by requiring staff to implement the practice. In fact, it said leadership views of legitimacy, efficiency and effectiveness of the measure were not a key factor at all, but staff views of legitimacy were.

“This shows it really had to be the workers who saw this change as worthwhile and saw how the reform was worth their time to change their behaviors and workplace practices,” Portillo said.

In some sites where the practice was not sustained, KU said workers and management talked about the reform, but decided were unsure of what it meant or how they could find a way to make it fit with their daily operations, meaning it did not score well in cognitive or pragmatic legitimacy. Contingency management works by helping individuals set goals for recovery, meet requirements set in terms of probation by courts and rewarding them when certain milestones are met.

“It sounds simple, but this is a huge shift in mindset for the criminal justice system because the system is so punishment-oriented. So, it was not always viewed as legitimate,” Portillo said.

According to KU, presenting the change in operations shows that reform cannot be implemented or maintained without showing its value. It said demonstrating the efficacy or leadership telling workers it is something they have to do is simply not enough. It said while much effort and money have been invested in criminal justice reform, a deeper understanding of what reforms work as well as how to make them work is important to improving the criminal justice system and helping individuals successfully transition back into society.

“This is definitely an area that needs more research, as the federal government invests a lot, and individual organizations invest a lot of time and resources in reforms and evidence-based practices,” Portillo said. “We need to know more about how reform can be successful and how it is sustained for the long term.”

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