Evidence-based practices: A question of morality?
For those of us pledged to protect the public’s safety, can we expect ourselves to do anything less?
In the summer of 2005, the National Institute of Justice held its annual research conference on crime and crime prevention. The topic that year was Evidence-Based Practices (EBP). At the first morning’s plenary session, the large ballroom was packed with academics and practitioners waiting to hear the latest information from some of the world’s most eminent scholars.
Pens and pencils were poised to note down new facts, figures, and other nuggets of wisdom about how to deal effectively with offenders. Instead, what the audience heard was a startling personal message. EBP is as much a matter of morality as it is of science. As professionals in the field of public safety, we have an active, ethical responsibility to use what research tells us, not only to pursue our trade, but also to do good and to prevent harm.
Six years later, the A&E Television Network began airing a series of reality television shows called “Beyond Scared Straight.” It was a sequel to a 1978, award-winning documentary on the same topic. It heaped fulsome praise on the Scared Straight program which exposes at-risk juveniles to the experience of prison in the hope of deterring them from a future life of crime.
While in 1978 there was not a body of research about the effectiveness of this intervention, today we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Scared Straight does harm and can increase recidivism among youthful participants by as much as 28 percent. In a meta-analysis of randomized studies on Scared Straight, the renowned Campbell Collaboration concluded, “These programs likely increase the odds that children exposed to them will commit offenses in the future…doing nothing would have been better than exposing juveniles to the program.”
To its credit, the Department of Justice took this research and in a strong op-ed piece condemned the A&E series. As a result, two of the three states highlighted in the series, Maryland and California, have suspended their Scared Straight initiatives.
Unfortunately, such a forthright acknowledgement that professionals in our field can do harm, and therefore have a moral obligation to cease doing so, is as notable for its uniqueness as for its boldness. It is a relatively rare event in our field. In hospitals across the country, doctors, nurses, insurance companies, and other medical care providers have publicly established what they call a set of research-based “never events.”
They have drawn a line in the sand that says “we have a moral responsibility as protectors of public health to ensure that such events never, ever occur in our facilities.” These events are often simple things such as not coming in contact with a patient without first washing one’s hands or ever allowing the head of a respiratory patient’s bed to be at less than a 45 degree angle of elevation.
In corrections, we too could develop a list of research-based “never events” if we so choose. It might include items such as never placing low-risk and high-risk offenders in group treatment together or sending our most vulnerable children to programs where the evidence is clear that they do harm, even if they are politically popular.
But developing such a public commitment means that we have to start treating Evidence-Based Practices as much as an exercise in morality as in science. DOJ’s outraged reaction to misguided efforts by a major television network and by some of the most populous states in this country – that not only violate what we know but also what we should be doing to assist delinquents and offenders – must become the rule rather than the exception. For those of us pledged to protect the public’s safety, can we expect ourselves to do anything less?