Apr 25, 2014

Dr. Ed. Latessa on Evidence-Based Practices

Dr. Ed Latessa, a national expert on evidence-based practices in the criminal justice arena, addressed the 2014 International Community Justice Summit. Dr. Latessa described core lessons from years of research around reducing recidivism. Here are some highlights for practitioners who are designing interventions for criminal justice populations:

Lesson 1: Some things don’t work! Dr Latessa highlighted correctional boot camps, shame-based programs, and talk therapy approaches as ineffective for justice-involved persons. Failure to implement evidence-based programs with fidelity can also lead to poor recidivism outcomes. 

Lesson 2: Almost everything you want to fix starts with an assessment. Actuarial risks and needs assessment tools target the right clients for the right interventions. These tools also help us to know what is working to reduce recidivism. There has been a proliferation of assessment tools recently. According to Dr. Latessa, "what tool you use matters less than how well you use it." These tools help us understand both static risk factors, but more importantly, dynamic risk factors that can be changed through effective interventions. Some dynamic factors can change quickly, like employment, while others take longer to change, like criminal thinking. 

Lesson 3: If you want to reduce recidivism focus on the people most likely to reactivate. Programs that work for high risk offenders produce opposite effects for low risk offenders. 

Lesson 4: Sometimes we fail because we don’t provide enough treatment (Dosage). Most studies show that the longer in treatment the greater the effects, yet positive effects diminish if treatment goes too long. It is important to get the dosage right; another reason that good assessment is critical.

Lesson 5: Everyone thinks they are an expert on criminal behavior. This leads to a lot of misguided advice and policies. Too often, according to Dr. Latessa, professional training determines what we focus on in criminal justice agencies. Crime is an area where everyone thinks they intuitively know what should be done. For example, Dr. Latessa talked about criminal justice agencies focusing on knowing a client's criminal friends without assessing if any of their associates might be a pro-social influence who can support a cleint's re-integration. 

Lesson 6: We Need to target multiple risk factors.The more criminogenic needs you target the better results a client and program can achieve. 

Lesson 8: We can change offender behavior if we go about it the right way. Social learning is much more powerful than talk therapy. The best strategies focus on structured social learning, and cognitive behavioral approaches.Social learning theory of  human behavior recognizes that we don’t just learn good things, we learn bad things in our lives. If we can change the way a person thinks about a challenges or what they think they know, we can change their behavior.

Dr Latessa encouraged programs to develop their own data on the population they are serving. This helps on-going program development and continuous improvement efforts. Programs also need effective leadership  and good quality assurance to implement evidence-based practices with fidelity.

By Christopher Watler, Project Director-Harlem Community Justice Center

I am blogging from the 2014 International Community Court Summit in San Francisco this week. The Summit is co-organized by the California Administrative Office of the Courts and the Center for Court Innovation, with support from the U.S Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance and the California Endowment. Follow the conference on twitter #communityjustice2014