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2012 year in review: This ain’t your daddy’s Department of Corrections

What does 2013 have in store for the corrections profession?

By Laura Bedard and Deborah Brodsky

It is hard to believe it’s time again to talk about what’s in store for another year. Two things we know for sure: time flies and the only thing constant is change. As someone eloquently mentioned the other day, “This ain’t your Daddy’s Department of Corrections.”

What does 2013 have in store for the corrections profession? As we see it, there is one overarching theme that is driving the trends in corrections practice beneath it and that theme is “accountability”—a very serious concept that means responsibility on the positive side and, a word that strikes terror in all of us, liability on the negative side.

What does accountability mean in corrections? An easy way to look at it is to compare it to how accountability works in education. Let’s go back 40 years in education. What was educational accountability in 1972? It was a report card. Who was responsible or liable with that form of accountability? Was it the school system? Was it the school? Was it the—heaven forbid—teacher? No. Well, at least in our houses, it was the student. And how did this accountability system work? You bring home As, great, you get a new pair of bellbottoms; you bring home Fs, not so great, you get to go find a switch and say goodbye to your Gran Torino and hello to bus 109. So while 1972 had its charms—and certainly fashion was part of it—it was a simple system. Compare that to 2012.

What is accountability in education in 2012? Is it a report card? Yes, that’s definitely part of it. We still have that all important mechanism working to keep an eye on the direct point of service delivery in the education system, the student. But the buck, literally and figuratively, does not stop there. We know accountability now extends much more broadly to: teachers (performance pay), principals (hiring, bonuses, and firing), to schools (school grading and the new competition of such things as charter schools), districts (statewide reporting of comparisons), and to states (billions of dollars in federal grants that insist that states are tracking all of the above). Bottom line is that all parts of the system—teachers (correctional officers) and principals (wardens) included—are expected to be responsible or liable for the good or bad performance of our students.

Not only is it no longer a simple system, it is also a very public system. The only thing that is simple in education accountability in 2012 is that the public simply expects all points in the system to be accountable. And, similarly, accountability is now the driver in corrections.

Simple corrections as we know it is gone. The days of locking inmates up and throwing away the key are done. And who is responsible and liable now? Our reliance on simple accountability is changing. Where we used to focus only on the inmate, we now focus on all parts of the system. Where we used to simply reward and punish (a good inmate gets gain time and ultimately release versus a bad inmate who gets isolation and stays locked up), we now look at the system. Yes, the offender is the final point of accountability, but the public is beginning to expect everyone from correctional officers, to private vendors, to wardens and entire departments of corrections to contribute to the success—or failure—of the offender.

How does this theme of accountability translate into corrections practices? We see three major paradigm shifts in store for 2013.

First, it’s all about re-entry and re-integration--that much watched point where almost all “inmates” return to being “neighbors” (and employees, and parents, and, well, sometimes inmates again).

Departments are going to be judged by how well they do keeping inmates OUT (making sure they stay law abiding neighbors) and providing opportunities for rehabilitation. It will be more fashionable (for lack of a better word) to have program facilities where inmates can go to school, learn a vocation and work on behavioral issues. And it’s not just about how well the inmate performs, it’s about how well the programs are able to deliver. The “Smart Justice” and “Right on Crime” movements are really pushing for performance driven programs that work to save money and improve public safety in the long run by keeping people from returning to the system These movements will continue to see bi-partisan support and are gaining strength.

Second, programs like pre-trial diversion for low level offenders are in expanding. Pretrial services allow us to target our limited public safety resources at the front of the system. By adding the evidence-based tools of risk assessment to our jail and corrections toolbox, we are able to make sure our most violent and dangerous offenders are kept locked away from the public.

At the same time we can identify the right individuals for less expensive and proven safe community corrections and supervision alternatives like drug court and electronic monitoring for low level offenders. The point is that we can get a better handle on everyone we are supervising through risk assessment. We can all rest easier at night knowing we can keep our public safer by making sure the offenders we are afraid of are behind bars, and all offenders are provided the most cost-effective level of supervision that gets offenders to court and keeps them from reoffending.

Third, states will continue to outsource. With Departments and states in fiscal crisis, we will continue to see outsourcing of portions of corrections and may perhaps see entire systems turned over to the private sector. Medical and mental health outsourcing initiatives to reduce costs through private sector purchasing power and non-unionized labor forces are a nationwide trend undertaken to save departments millions. Educational and vocational programming may be outsourced as well. Several organizations, both nonprofit and for profit have been emerged which focus solely on the programmatic phases of an inmate’s incarceration, allowing correctional agencies to focus on their core security function.

Lastly, technology will continue to penetrate and permeate the corrections market. There are numerous technological advances that will enhance the profession and allow us to do our jobs more effectively and more efficiently. On the ground examples include bio-metric readers to make sure officers are doing necessary cell checks, enhanced video systems, cell phone locators and blockers. There’s no silver bullet as we know, but technology really helps us do our jobs better and will all continue to advance in 2013.

So, it’s true, “This ain’t your Daddy’s department of corrections.” But we think the injection of both sides of accountability--responsibility and liability— and the continual changes that the demands of accountability will bring will make us all do a better job by protecting the public and ourselves and elevating the critical practices of our profession. . As we enter into 2013, stay safe, and remember, the only thing constant is change.

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.