Professor Edward J. Latessa, director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, discusses the importance of evidence-based practices and the challenges of implementing reform. (April 2014)
The following is a transcript:
ED LATESSA: I always tell people you know, you think it's easy to change behavior, try to change it around, it's not an easy thing to do. And that's certainly true when you're trying to change a staff or an organization.
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi, I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation and I am here today at the International Community Justice Summit in San Francisco, and I have the pleasure right now of speaking with Ed Latessa, who is a professor and director of the School of Criminal Justice, and the University of Cincinnati’s Correction Institute. Let's talk about evidence based practice. How has it come about, that we now recognize that evidence based practice are an important component of any new initiative, and why are they important?
LATESSA: Well, I think that the evidence based movement had its origins in other fields. For example, medicine is often considered one of the leaders in moving in this direction. In the case of corrections specifically, I think there were a couple things that helped the movement. One was through techniques like med analysis. Researchers became better at sifting through lots and lots of studies, and so we really started to see where there was a cumulative effect of studies in certain areas. Second, the National Institute of Corrections, 20 some years ago, really began to promote this work. I remember for many years I did workshops with Don Andrews from Canada, and we spent a lot of time in those days trying to convince people that we actually knew something about correctional programs. What's interesting now is I don't really have to convince people. It's really around implementation. The same, if you think about, you know, basically the use of data to help make better decisions applies in policing, it applies in crime prevention, and we've really seen almost the entire field embrace evidence based practice. I think there's a lot of reasons that the message has caught on. As I said, other fields have embraced it. I think more recently the financial difficulties that states and jurisdictions have faced, some very, very conservative states and legislators have looked hard and what they're spending money on, and what they're getting in return. And that, of course, has helped fuel the demand for more effective programs and interventions. You know, in Texas they say it's not about being tough on crime, it's about being smart on time. And I think that when you have a state like Texas that has embraced this kind of work, that sends a powerful message to others.
WOLF: You used the word implementation as being important, so maybe you could talk a little bit about that. You might have a study that shows a certain strategy works. Are you saying that may well be true but if you don't implement in properly, it won't work?
LATESSA: Yeah, there's no question that that's our biggest challenge. I always tell people you know, you think it's easy to change behavior, try to change it around, it's not an easy thing to do. And that's certainly true when you're trying to change a staff or an organization that have been doing thing a certain way, they've hired people for certain reasons and now, you know, someone like me comes a long and says what you're doing isn't very effective. Once they get past that initial kind of shock of that, we're talking about, in many cases, a major paradigm shift, and that requires training, coaching, quality assurance. That’s a lot of work. That’s not easy. What we have found, in our work, and the research backs this up, that training alone is not a very good way to change behavior. It's not very effective. People take what they like from the training and they ignore the rest. So in some ways, what that's saying is information alone isn't enough. You've got to go to that next step, which is coaching staff, just like you would coach someone who's trying to learn a new skill, a child trying to learn a sport, an offender trying to learn a new way to behave. Coaching, giving feedback, collecting data, showing where it works, showing where it doesn't. As you put that together, you really become and evidence based organization, and not just someone who uses some evidence based programs. And I think at the end of the day, that's where we want to be.
WOLF: So you can't have someone drop in and coach you for a week, it sounds like you have to integrate into your functioning a way to make coaching an ongoing part of the program.
LATESSA: Yeah, with our model, we really focus on supervisors. We think they're the key to kind of long term sustainability. You've got to have, obviously, support at the top, but it's the supervisors where most staff take their cues. And so in some models we have them training, we not only train everyone, we make the supervisors use the model, they then are trained as coaches, they then are trained in quality assurance. Because I think for years we spent, you know, millions of dollars on training staff. You name it, I mean motivational interviewing, cog assessment, and we haven't necessarily given the systems the ability to sustain it over time. And I always tell folks I work with, you know, you're gonna get trained on something, you need to ask will they train trainers? Will they give us ongoing support? Because what happens when they leave? Or, of course what happens is most folks, when they roll out some new intervention, they get everybody trained and all excited and then two years later they're not gonna spend any more money on training. And so it becomes quality starts, fidelity starts to slip because they're basically saying, watch me and you'll figure it out. So I’m really convinced that you've got to stay with that agency and work with them, and give them the capacity to stay over time. The other thing it does is as new staff get hired and folks come on board, they think it's how you've always done it, you know? It all becomes a lot easier to sustain it, and to do it well.
WOLF: So what are some of the more exciting evidence based practice that people are beginning to integrate into their work with correction or more broadly in the justice system?
LATESSA: Well, I think there's some exciting work in a number of areas. I think that we continue to do work and assessment, and not just looking at assessment tools, but helping folks link those assessments to case plans and to interventions. A lot of work being done there. We've got a new model that we call EPICS, Effective Practices for Community Supervision, in which we're training probation, and parole, and case managers, on how to use core correctional practices, to work differently with their clients. And we're very excited. We've been doing this work around the country, it's based on Canadian work that Jim Bonta did, and it really changes the whole nature of the officer/client relationship. We've known for a long time that how many times you see them doesn't really matter. Case load sizes don't matter. It's what you do when you interact with an offender. It's teaching the officer how to develop a relationship, how to use authority appropriately, how to model, how to teach that offender new skills in a very short structured intervention. We're very excited about that work. We're actually testing something called Family EPICS, with juveniles, where we go out with the probation and parole officer into the home, and train the parent or parents on how to work differently with their child. And I’m convinced that if we can change the way we supervise and handle people we can have a profound effect on reducing recidivism. So that's exciting work. We're now starting to look at work with misdemeanants in pre-trial, some assessment work being done, some work that the center is doing, looking at misdemeanants. This has often been kind of an overlooked, neglected group because we don't think they're serious, but in fact it includes drunk drivers, and domestic violence offenders, people that can turn very deadly very quickly. And so that's exciting work that I think in the next few years we'll start to see some movement there.
WOLF: Let me ask you about the idea of community justice, which is really the underlying theme of this conference. Do you see that as something that fits in as an evidence based practice somewhere? Is it something that you can even really measure when you're talking about making a community engagement, collaborating with community stakeholders, a component of what you're doing? Some of what you described sounded a lot like procedural justice, which has emerged a lot from community justice programming. So I just wonder how you see community kind of supporting, or not, the movement to integrate more evidence based practices into justice.
LATESSA: Well, I think at the end of the day it's about looking at the data and looking at the studies. And so, you know, the concept of community justice is a valid one, but I have the same advice I give anyone that works in this field. We have to follow the data. Are there interventions? Are there groups that are appropriate for that type of model? Yes. Will it work everywhere? Probably not, and it certainly will not work with every type of offender. But it has a place. But again, we have to look at the data, we have to determine, you know, how do we get stakeholders engaged in meaningful ways, and not just superficially, how do we bring victims into this process so that they feel like they have a voice? And we have to be clear that, you know, there are interventions that are not gonna be effective with high risk offenders and we are, they are going to have to be in deeper system kind of programs. So I think it's part of the system, and we need to, again, collect data and we need folks like, you know, the Center for Court Innovation to kind of lead the way and help us understand how these processes work.
WOLF: Well, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me about your work. I've been speaking with Ed Matessa, who is a professor at the University of Cincinnati. He is the Director of the School of Criminal Justice and also the University of Cincinnati's Corrections Institute. I look forward to seeing your work evolve as time goes on.
LATESSA: Thank you, Rob.
WOLF: I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To learn more about the Center's work, you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org, and you can listen to our podcasts there and on iTunes. Thanks for listening.