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The secret to evidence-based practices is faith not science

Implementing evidence-based practices starts with believing in them

By Luke Whyte

By now, most correctional professionals are familiar with the term ‘evidence-based practices’ (EBPs) and the amazing results it’s proclaimed they’ll achieve. And yet, around the country recidivism rates remain high and many inmate treatment programs fail to meet expectations.

So what’s the problem? Why are so many agencies not seeing results?

Digging out the root of the issue
“There’s a cartoon that I’ve seen,” began Dennis Schrantz, former Policy and Strategic Planning Deputy Director with Michigan DOC, when speaking at an EBPs workshop in the 2010 ACA summer conference, “where Moses is coming down off the mountain and he’s got the 10 commandments tablet in his arms and he’s cradling them. Behind him the mountains are there with the thunder and clouds, etc., and he’s looking over his shoulder and he’s saying, ‘But what about implementation!?’”

And this is the root of the problem: Understanding why EBPs should work is the easy part, actually finding a way to implement them into an agencies policies and culture is a far more difficult task.

It won’t happen unless you believe it will happen
“In a real sense, it is not about programs,” Schrantz said, “there may be many programs that are part of what needs to be done, but what it really is, is a paradigm shift. There has to be a change in philosophy. There has to be a change in dedication of what the organization is about.”

Most often, the problem is one of ideology.

“It is the values that exist among the members of an organization – the beliefs,” said Roger Guy, Assistant Professor in the University of North Carolina’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice: “How many people in your agency really believe that offenders can change? How many believe that rehabilitation is possible?”

“The personality of an organization’s culture is really important because it pretty much dictates the behavior – how people are going to behave in an organization,” Guy said. “And norms become very embedded in the culture of an organization – they prevent change.”

Faith in action
A few years ago, Schrantz was tasked with finding a way to lower recidivism by implementing EBPs at the Michigan Dept. of Corrections.

“After the first three and a half years of implementation, (Michigan DOC) was able to improve the failure rate from one out of every two prisoners coming back to prison every year to one out of every three prisoners. So, statistically we were able to improve that rate by 30 percent,” Schrantz said.

“An organization, in order to do this work, has to become a learning organization.” he said. “They have to acknowledge that there is so much they need to learn and bring in the people who can help teach them that.”

But it is not enough that administrators reach out to the community for help. They need to turn inwards to learn from each other.

In order to get the department to align behind EBPs, Michigan DOC had to mend the “major disconnect” between its managers at the top of the agency and “the people doing all the work in the field.”

“In one of the early talks I gave at the agency that was well accepted by the folks in the field and not at all by the people in the top tier of the organization,” Schrantz said, “I said (to those in the field), ‘you are the most important people in this organization because you are the ones that are fighting crime. And that, of course, is our mission. Our job (as managers) is to make sure you the resources you need to do that.’”

This message is key, Guy says. For, if managers fail to build faith among staff in their capacity to bring about change, agencies will remain in a rut “where people feel like they are unable to effect change, where they say things like ‘I’m just a cog in the wheel’ or ‘I can’t do anything about this.’”

“You have to start with the end game,” Guy said. “If you want recidivism to be the goal, make it the goal, start with it, and then work back.”

Otherwise, despite what the research shows, success through EBPs will remain an allusive goal until staffers implementing them on the ground recognize that they are the ones who can and will truly make the difference.

The team of editors and writers is committed to tracking down and reporting on the most important issues and interviews in the correctional field.

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