Similarly to most other matters of public policies, corrections and treatment programs are designed in an interplay of more than a few forces, including, among others, traditions, public opinion, political interests and cultural norms. This dialectical process implies that voters and policy makers make decisions on many other rational, evidence-based grounds (Latessa, Cullen, & Gendreau, 2004). Thus, the advantages of having a public debate on justice policies may be counterbalanced by this method’s propensity to produce inferior results. Given the fact that causality (i.e. the relationships between different intervention and past inmates’ propensity to commit future offenses) can be measured and predict the effectiveness of interventions, this term paper makes a case for establishing factual data as a primary consideration in the design and implementation of future corrections and treatment programs.
Irrational Decision-Making in Contemporary Programs
The need for rationality in the justice system requires no further explanation. It is not unlikely that all citizens and legislators, regardless of their specific view of the system and how it should function, would like to see corrections and treatment programs that are as effective and efficient as possible. And yet, there is abundant evidence that poorly functioning programs and policies are still prevalent. Before touching some of the reasons for this situation (see the next section), it would be worthwhile to discuss some representative examples for irrationality.
Very few correctional means are as important as parole. Its relatively good (though far from perfect) effect as an incentive for good behavior and a means to get inmates out of crime (as well as the prison system’s balance sheets) seems to contrast how parole is treated in the public debate in more than a few states, as well as how it is executed. The latter aspect stands in the heart of a study (West-Smith, Pogrebin, & Poole, 2004), which examines the process of granting a parole from the perspective of both the inmates and the functioning of parole boards. Besides the different problematic and/or questionable aspects of process discussed in their study, the authors stress the great degree to which parole boards’ considerations are vague, inconsistent and unexpected. Since inmates don’t know how to behave in order to increase their chances to be granted parole. Moreover, the lack of transparency implies that nor inmates’ characteristics neither their readiness to a parole (in terms of e.g. having a coherent parole plan) are major determinants in parole hearing. In fact, West-Smith et al. support earlier authors’ impression that the most important determinants is the composition of the parole board, i.e. board members’ characteristics as individuals.
A different case, although similar in its level of irrationality, is the current trends in the field of probation. As thoroughly discussed by Whitehead and Braswell (2004), contemporary probation programs and probation officers have diverged from their original purpose of rehabilitating offenders in terms of both body and mind to another system of punishing offenders, retaliating their crimes looking for reasons to pull them back to jail instead of reinstalling them in normative environments. They identify a trend in which the treatment of failures to meet the probations conditions (e.g. technical violations such as positive testing for drugs and/or alcohol) becomes more and more severe as such the incidence rates of such offences grow. This is because the programs (and the people involved in them) are easy victims to governors (and other officials) who want to positions themselves as strong on crime, as well as to policies that (wrongly) assume that the most effective way to prevent future offences is ever-stricter mechanisms of surveillance and enforcement. Needless to say that this proportional increase in violations and response is not only alien to the whole rationale of probation but, and most importantly, results in a clear course of diminishing returns both all stakeholders, including probation officers, inmates who wish to start new lives, the law enforcement system and the general public.
Sources of Irrationality in Contemporary Programs and Possible Remedies
Abnormalities and/or long-lasting ineffectiveness in corrections and treatment programs are widespread and almost embedded into the system. The only way to correct the corrections system is by (1) understanding the causes of each of problems and (2) treating the problem from its roots. Defining irrational policies as the result of nothing else than ‘correctional quackery,’ Latessa et al. (2004) suggest three sources of irrational decision-making one might like to consider and capitalize on to improve the system:
First and perhaps most important, research findings are implemented only rarely in decision-making, leaving too much room to irrelevant considerations such as organizational traditions and myths. By conducting empirical research, which aims to measure the effectiveness of interventions on researching one or more goals, the system will be able to optimize its methods and explain its policies on solid grounds. Needless to say empirical research will provide an excellent opportunity to test new and existing theories in the field of corrections and treatment, including, among others, claims of politicians and other non-professionals.
Second, Latessa et al. (2004) and West-Smith et al. (2004) make a clear case for introducing rigorous methods of qualitative and quantitative measurement and assessment tools into everyday management. These include the collection of first-hand, accurate data concerning the effects of decision, actions and changes, as well as giving more weight to these data in the public and professional discourse, similarly to the norms in fields such as medicine and psychology. It should be noted, however, that before such data is collected and used for research and practice, the systems much make sure reliability and validity of the measurement tools, as failure to do so would cause more damage than avoiding research altogether.
Finally, a solid managerial and evidence-based platform can facilitate a shift into individualized corrections and treatment programs. This may solve the discrepancies between the offenders’ needs and the performance of the system (see e.g. Whitehead & Braswell, 2004). This does not mean, however, that the system should start designing tailored programs, but rather categorize needs on empirical grounds and address them rationally, i.e. with the means shown to be most effective, based on hard evidences.