Expert: Finding Programs That Work Key to Reducing Oklahoma's Recidivism Rate

Article excerpt

Throughout the decades, corrections officials and community organizations have tried a multitude of tactics to keep the offenders they release from returning to their prisons.

Today, researchers know which approaches don't work - such as shaming offenders, self-help programs and punishment tactics like boot camp. But they're also beginning to understand much more fully what does work, with empirical evidence to back it up.

As Oklahoma continues to study criminal justice reform and ways to reduce recidivism, leaders in the effort received a lesson Wednesday from Ed Latessa, a criminal justice professor and researcher from Ohio. His visit dovetails with Oklahoma's Justice Reinvestment Initiative announced earlier this summer and this fall's effective date for House Bill 2131, which expands the use of community sentencing programs and increases GPS monitoring of low- risk inmates.

Oklahoma leads the nation in the number of women incarcerated and is third nationwide in the number of men in prison.

The system doesn't hold up under that trajectory, said House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, who has been a legislative leader in the reform process.

"One of the statistics that has jumped out at me is that Oklahoma has increased its appropriation to the Department of Corrections by well over 30 percent, yet in that same period of time, our violent crime rate has increased," Steele said. "I'm told that 36 other states have experienced a decrease in violent crime rates. It indicates that what we're doing right now is obviously not working."

Latessa said a strategy on reducing recidivism must be rooted in a body of evidence-based research, not anecdotal evidence that may make people feel good but isn't necessarily effective. He compared it to people's belief about smoking: Most everyone believes it is bad for health because of the wealth of research that says it is.

No studies show that punishment alone consistently reduces recidivism, Latessa said. That doesn't mean that people shouldn't be incarcerated; it means that prison time alone won't keep them from reoffending, he said.

"I'm willing to bet that if you go to any jail in the state of Oklahoma, 80 percent of people in those jails on any given day have been there before," he said. "If it works so well, why do they keep coming back?"

The good news, Latessa said, is that 40-60 percent of studies of correctional treatment services show reduced recidivism. The bad news is that 40-60 percent don't work.

The key is finding programs that work, and sticking with them, because poor programs are worse than none at all, Latessa said. The most effective interventions are behavioral and action-oriented, he said, because they focus on current risk factors, not the past.

"The reason is quite simple: I can't change the past," he said. …