The Third Branch
Director's column: Research, social appetite for change are converging
By A. John Voelker, Director of State Courts
|A. John Voelker|
I recently participated in a statewide symposium entitled Treatment Alternatives and Diversion – Effective Criminal Justice Reform through Research Based Practices. More than 200 individuals from a variety of justice system partners attended and heard remarks by state Atty. General J.B. Van Hollen and Department of Corrections Secretary Edward F. Wall, among others. The turnout reinforced my belief that the current environment is favorable for change within the criminal justice system and our approach to certain case types and offenders. I was invited to open the symposium, and wanted to share with you some of what I said. Here is an excerpt:
How many of you listened to, heard about, or read something about Atty. General Holder's address to the American Bar Association a couple of weeks ago? His topic was criminal justice reform. He began by noting, "We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken." He went on to say, "It is well past time to implement common-sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast."
While he identified specific actions the Department of Justice will be taking, his remarks received a lot of attention and spurred debate in the media on whether there is a sea change coming in the criminal justice system. I think in Wisconsin we can answer that with an emphatic yes. As I stand here today, I see a great opportunity to advance the effectiveness of our system. As I look out at the number of people here today I am even more convinced.
It reminds me of what happened in the 1970s when a number of factors came together to force a shift in the approach to criminal justice. At the time, the public was concerned about an increase in violent crime, and politicians on both sides of the aisle were questioning the idea of rehabilitation as a goal of corrections. A decisive moment came in 1974 when an article appeared in The Public Interest by sociologist Robert Martinson. It was titled "What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform." His basic conclusion was "nothing works," a message he repeated on 60 Minutes a year later.
The nation was interested and willing to listen, and in the following years, our approach to criminal justice changed. The focus was to make the system tougher with such things as minimum-mandatory sentencing, Truth-in-Sentencing and three strikes legislation. One result was a growing prison system.
I think people are willing to listen again. More and more questions are being asked about the cost of incarceration and the "revolving door" of repeat offenders.
Again politicians from both sides of the aisle are part of the discussion. In Wisconsin we most recently saw this with the bipartisan support for an increase in funding for the TAD (Treatment Alternatives and Diversion) program.
Atty. General Holders noted that no fewer than 17 states have directed funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services like treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce recidivism.
Interestingly, Martinson – the sociologist whose work in the 1970s helped to spark the 'tough on crime' movement – thought his findings on rehabilitation would reduce the prison population because he felt that the prison system could not be reformed. He was supportive of swift and certain sanctions, but also felt that keeping non-violent offenders in the community was more beneficial than incarcerating them.
The phrase "nothing works" was predominant in the political rhetoric and media coverage, but the study actually concluded as follows: "The field of corrections has not as yet found satisfactory ways to reduce recidivism by significant amounts." Thankfully, we didn't discount this early research, but continued to build upon it and learn from it. We know now that things like cognitive behavioral programming have a positive impact on recidivism.
The exciting thing is I think we are living in a time when research findings and the social appetite for change are converging again.
As evidence, let's look at some of the language Gov. Scott Walker included in the Executive Order creating the Statewide Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Under duties it says:
Strengthen the criminal justice system through the promotion of evidence-based practices, risk reduction programming, and implementation of effective and sound strategies for crime prevention, diversion and community-based alternatives to confinement.
Investigate and disseminate information about effective and innovative criminal justice related programs employed at the county level, including treatment alternatives, diversion initiatives, and specialty courts.
Encourage and facilitate the development of effective county or multi-county criminal justice coordinating councils to foster innovations based on local criminal justice environments.
We are in the center of this change, and we have an opportunity and a responsibility to provide leadership. From my perspective there are a few key principles we all need to respect if we are going to make continual improvements in our criminal justice system.
- First, be committed to apply the science behind criminogenic risks in developing and implementing responses/interventions.
- Second, use a team approach that emphasizes partnerships among justice stakeholders and taps into community resources.
- Third, define the system based on outcomes, not rhetoric such as 'soft on crime' or 'tough on crime.'
I encourage you to watch the program, as it will provide you with a wealth of information.
Coverage of the symposium by WisconsinEye can be found at: www.wiseye.org/Programming/VideoArchive/EventDetail.aspx?evhdid=7786
I should note that Atty. General Van Hollen outlined how DOJ will be distributing the new TAD funding in his remarks. These funds provide an opportunity for counties to fund criminal justice initiatives.Back to The Third Branch current issue