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“C-Cubed” and Being Accountable for Recidivism

This week I’m heading back to “Why have prisons?” This isn’t a rhetorical question, but judging by some of the emails, some respondents either believed I meant it as a rhetorical question or just took it as an opportunity to rant about my being a part of the “rightwing noise machine.” On the other hand, there were a few emails that not only took a shot at answering the question, but also ventured commentary on our criminal justice system from start to finish.

While I was in the military, “C2” or “C Squared,” was a shorthand term used for “Command and Control.” In the criminal justice system we might try “C3” or “C Cubed” as a shorthand term for “Cops, Courts, and Corrections.” One of my oldest friends here in the valley, I’ll call him Mr. Grim, shares a view commonly believed to be widespread in the rightwing ranks. It’s best to quote him directly:

…my personal belief remains to the extent that I think that prisons and the incarceration of law-breakers in said prisons should serve three out of the four reasons you listed as options.  Retribution (punishment), deterrence and incapacitation should all be equally valid answers to the “Why have prisons?” question.  Rehabilitation is a bonus if it does happen.  Hopefully at least some of those guilty of committing crime(s) and are convicted “learn their lesson” so to speak and are effectively “rehabilitated” after serving out the punishment for their crime(s).  But we both know that doesn’t happen as often as it should and thus the point that rehabilitation is a bonus. ~Mr. Grim

Part of my reason for posing the question was simple curiosity. The reason for the curiosity is my primary reason for posing the question. My curiosity was aroused by an interesting and important piece of research published by Richard Tewksbury of the University of Louisville, and Elizabeth Ehrhardt Mustaine of the University of Central Florida entitled Correctional Orientations of Prison Staff. Tewksbury and Mustaine split deterrence into two parts: specific deterrence (meaning “to punish each prisoner and discourage him or her from committing crime”) and general deterrence (meaning “to punish prisoners as an example and discourage other people from committing crime”).[1]

The reference link below is to the abstract which I’ll quote in full here, but I believe you must subscribe to the journal in order to access the full research article:

Beliefs about the purpose and goals of incarceration are important determinants of how policy makers and practitioners perceive correctional operations. Drawing on survey data from 554 corrections staff persons in Kentucky, this research explores perceptions of important and primary goals for incarceration and factors influencing the endorsement of 5 correctional ideologies (rehabilitation, retribution, incapacitation, specific deterrence, and general deterrence). Results show that all five ideologies are perceived as somewhat important, with rehabilitation receiving the strongest support. Demographic influences include female staff being more supportive of rehabilitation, administrators and program staff being most supportive of rehabilitation, and security staff providing the strongest support for retribution. [1]

The Closer, a TV show I’ve watched on occasion, had a great line that I’ll quote as closely as I can recall: “If you’re a carpenter, everything looks like a nail.” Clearly, if you work toward rehabilitation your orientation is likely to be supportive of rehabilitation. After reading the entire research article, the abstract is somewhat misleading concerning the stated results. These views, as stated in the title of the research, are all by corrections workers, including the administrative, program, industries, services and security staff. I’d like to find some research that investigates the orientation of you, the general public. As indicated in my post “Why have prisons?” and the research above, “Beliefs about the purpose and goals of incarceration are important determinants of how policy makers and practitioners perceive correctional operations.”[1]

This brings me to the next question: “Should correctional facilities, prisons, penitentiaries, etc., be held accountable for recidivism rates?” Clearly, if you believe the purpose of a prison is for retribution, then holding a facility accountable for recidivism is not sensible. However, if you believe the purpose of prison is rehabilitation, then it is clear that correctional facilities should actually “correct behavior” and reduce recidivism – meaning of course that the system should be held accountable.

This brings me to the Oregon Accountability Model (OAM) and the Mission of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). The OAM states:

The Oregon Accountability Model encompasses the simultaneous, coordinated and efficient implementation of many Department of Corrections initiatives and projects that provide a foundation for inmates to lead successful lives upon release. ~OAM

This logically leads to the ODOC Mission Statement:

The mission of the Oregon Department of Corrections is to promote public safety by holding offenders accountable for their actions and reducing the risk of future criminal behavior. ~ODOC – Mission, Vision, and Core Values

Oregon, in terms of its Department of Corrections (which of course represents you, the governed), clearly believes that reducing recidivism is of primary importance for its mission. This is in step with the PEW Center on the States’ Executive Summary entitled Ten Steps Corrections Directors Can Take to Strengthen Performance. So finally, the question once again:

“Should correctional facilities, prisons, penitentiaries, etc., be held accountable for recidivism rates?” Whether your answer is “yes” or “no,” please provide at least a brief account of why you believe the answer is yes or no. Please feel free to answer in the comments or email, and if by email, let me know if it’s OK to quote you directly. Thanks!

Cheers all!

[1] Tewksbury, R., and Mustaine, E. E., The Prison Journal 2008; 88; 207, “Correctional Orientations of Prison Staff.”

  1. Jeff
    July 12th, 2009 at 18:38 | #1

    It depends on what you mean by ‘held accountable’ and how you figure the rates. Is recidivism a lifetime rate or is it figured every six months? By held accountable do you mean “fire the administration” or levy fines?

    Yes, recidivism should be studied by institution. It should be one of the prime concerns of a prison. If one institution has a much higher rate than the average, that institution should be studied closely to see why. The same is true for an institution with a very low recidivism rate.

    Recidivism isn’t just an institutional problem, though. It’s a judge problem. When a judge sentences a child molester to 3 months in prison, no institution in the world is going to fix him and he’ll come back through a little while later. When judges take it upon themselves to amend charges or ignore statutes, it further affects recidivism.

    Personally, the program I work on for juvenile offenders isn’t supposed to take violent offenders, they’re supposed to be sentenced to 6 months, and they’re supposed to have a suspended commitment to DJJ hanging over their heads. I don’t know that a single kid on my 15 kid unit meets all those requirements right now. The judge either reduced charges, ignores the suspended commitment, and in over 50% of the cases, simply sends the kid home if he doesn’t successfully complete the program.

    Recidivism reduction begins with judges and continues after incarceration with support programs (not charity, mind you, but support).

    It’s late and it’s been a long weekend. Thanks for sending me the email to the new Skald’s lair. Hope I haven’t peppered you with bad spelling, half-formed thoughts, and grammar errors too badly.

  2. July 13th, 2009 at 16:12 | #2

    Jeff – glad you dropped by to the new “Skald’s lair” 🙂 ! Guess I’ll address your last paragraph first. I wouldn’t worry over much about bad spelling, half-formed thoughts, and grammar errors… I’d be the one to let slip a few half-formed thoughts. I’ve always found your writing to be C-cubed… clear, concise, and cogent. Though I’ve a rich background in language arts education (post secondary), I’ve said before that it’s because I had such a hard time with it in high school. I am a reasonable copy editor, “competent poet” according to some judges (doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing poems and entering poetry contests), and a marginal fine artist, but give me some math through tensor calc, a physics problem, or even a problem in philosophical logic (which is really just another kind of mathematics) and I’ll do ok! Of course, that probably explains some of my antipathy to the soft sciences Mostly, I envy the skill creative writers like you possess!

    Hmmm, accountable? “…responsible to somebody or for something (responsible to somebody for something). Capable of being explained” works for me. I think the penalty for failing in the assigned responsibility could range anywhere from dismissal to demotion, unless the failure is able to be explained in terms of reasons outside the control of the administrator(s). Much the same way New York City uses COMPSTAT to hold police management accountable for crime statistics in their precincts. As for the rates, here in Oregon we are now tracking one, two, and three year rates as a percentage of the total release cohort. We define a release cohort as inmates released to post prison supervision or probation during a given six month period. I think a three year periodicity is a good starting point, but no matter what might be decided, I also think the rates should be standardized nationally for purposes of comparison and interstate research cooperation.

    As to the rest of your comments, I agree with virtually all of the suggestions and really liked the connection of recidivism to judges/courts – it’s an observation that is right under our noses, and yet it goes largely unnoticed. The program you work on for juvenile offenders… YIKES.

    I visited our juvenile facility, our women’s facility, and a few men’s facilities. I chose to work with men because the comments and unstated policies seemed to be skewed unfavorably in terms of male staff. I avoided juvenile corrections for a variety of reasons, and primary among those reasons is I am unsure how I feel about the juvenile corrections system. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the teenage brain is a work in progress – even in to the very early twenties in some cases. This makes me think that if cognitive behavioral therapy is used, then it needs to be carefully tailored to a changing pattern of adolescent cognitive development. Scares the hell out of me! Less important, but only marginally so, are the rules of engagement for violence – especially when some of the “kids” between 16 and 21 are man sized and just as dangerous.

    “Recidivism reduction begins with judges and continues after incarceration with support programs (not charity, mind you, but support).”

    I whole heartedly agree. With current events, I think letting the public know the role of the courts/judges in recidivism would be manageable. Unfortunately, unless there is a concerted effort to not only educate the public, but also to involve the public (in terms of communities and targeted organizations) with inmate re-entry, I don’t think support programs will get much… well, support. With respect to the buzzword “re-entry,” you might like to check out Ten Steps Corrections Directors Can Take to Strengthen Performance from the PEW Center on the States. The first step addresses this very issue in terms of getting the agency mission right!

    Good grief! I should have made this a post 😉 !!! Thanks for the great comment – it should make for an excellent argument starter at work… hehehe

  3. John
    July 13th, 2009 at 20:24 | #3

    Just a quick comment.

    Isn’t making the corrections system accountable for recidivism kind of like blaming the AA when one of their members falls off the wagon? I’m not suggesting we don’t try, but some people don’t want to be helped and ultimately the blame lies with them.

  4. July 13th, 2009 at 21:02 | #4

    Hey John! Actually, AA is often blamed when one of their members falls off the wagon… but only by sociologists and psychologists 😉 There is a difference though – AA actually offers a program, and quite often, our prisons fail to offer anything other than confinement to correct behavior. Oregon’s Powder River facilities not only offered a program but also follow up and support after release. It enjoyed enormous success according to initial reports – though in reduced budgetary times…

    You’re right though, ultimately the fault lies with the person making the choices. That this is true is demonstrated by Powder River’s intake prerequisites – the inmate desiring admittance to the program had to demonstrate a positive motivation to complete the program and abide by the follow up requirements. I don’t know how well the Powder River facilities are now performing, but in the first five years of operation it was considered a model for other institutions.

    Thanks for the comments John.

  5. George Anonymuncule Seldes
    July 15th, 2009 at 18:16 | #5

    The question typifies the problem, treating parts of the system in isolation and then attempting to assign a grade to their performance. Each actor in the play responds to this approach defensively and nonconstructively.

    What we have to do is consider all parts of the system; this would include everything from our efforts to deter crime (locked gates, warning signs, visible cameras), to the things we do to detect it (police, more cameras, drug testing, tip lines), to things we do to investigate it, establish culpability, and then, finally, the things we do to respond to those found culpable for lawbreaking, whether that be diversion or aggressive prosecutions etc.

    Every part of that flow helps contribute to the overall result we have today, a fantastically expensive system that is permeated with pervasive racism, class bias, and which is proficient at destroying families, creating the next generation of miscreants, and turning low-level miscreants into really scary incorrigibles. Trying to focus only on the prison piece of that is foolish. Every part is a link in the chain.

  6. July 16th, 2009 at 22:36 | #6

    @George Anonymuncule Seldes
    George – sorry I didn’t respond sooner, you know how it is, “Each actor in the play responds to this approach defensively and nonconstructively.” I just finished working a double shift, considered waiting until I was better rested, and thought, “nah, he’s a typical liberal and won’t really hear a word I say because he’s convinced of his own rightness – and will likely respond defensively and unconstructively anyway.”

    Of course, like you, I thought that unfair and wondered – perhaps there might be some effective communication if I can avoid using loaded words that stir up defensiveness and unconstructive responses. For instance, the OAM that I mention in the post is a fairly comprehensive document that addresses six components that the DOC actually has at least some control over. Kind of like links in a chain – you evaluate the links, find the ones that seem to be failing to perform to expectations, and work on each problem link to improve its performance. Each of these six components is further examined for component parts based largely on existing sociological research (though there is some psych research as well). The six elements of the OAM are:

    1. Criminal Risk Factor Assessment and Case Planning
    2. Staff-Inmate Interactions
    3. Work and Programs
    4. Children and Families
    5. Reentry
    6. Community Supervision and Programs

    In a really great book, @Thinking, 3rd Edition, Gary Kirby and Jeffery Goodpaster highlight some of the difficulties in evaluating or troubleshooting some systems:

    Chaotic Systems

    Much of science has been dominated by the great laws of nature, concerning motion, thermodynamics, nuclear periodicity, and relativity. These laws work well when applied to simple movements such as those of a planet, an airplane, or a baseball, producing such accurate predictions that the universe appears to be determined. However, other areas of nature seem to be impossible to determine. These areas are called chaotic systems. According to chaos theory, chaotic systems are extremely sensitive to “initial conditions,” meaning that any uncertainty or error in the measurement of the system’s variables at a given time (initial condition) will eventually lead to conditions that were not foreseeable. Changing weather, liquid turbulence, and the branching of trees, blood vessels, and neurons in the brain are examples of chaotic systems. Even economics and human behavior can be seen as chaotic systems.

    In chaotic systems, or even just sufficiently complex systems, it is common during the trouble shooting process to flowchart the system and troubleshoot manageable pieces of that system. The OAM identifies six elements of the process that are worth trying to improve. I’ll try to avoid the myth of perfection and work toward a workable and achievable solution. So rather than coloring “each actor” I don’t know as defensive (though some maybe) and unconstructive (some are), I’ll work toward the best and seek solutions to that small portion of the pond I happen to swim in. Who knows, maybe a change for the better might occur by having just a few people seeking solutions to problems in their own part of the flow chart!


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