Governments can reduce recidivism when they provide targeted services to individuals at risk of reoffending. Too often, however, state criminal justice agencies lack information about whether the programs they offer are truly effective. In Iowa, corrections leaders are closing this information gap with an innovative approach that uses the best available research to inform these choices: program assessment.
In 2016, the Iowa Department of Corrections, in partnership with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, conducted an inventory of the programs in its offender management database, the Iowa Correctional Offender Network known as ICON. The department collected data on program design and capacity and then categorized each by evidence of effectiveness based on rigorous research studies. In this case, the focus has been on the likelihood that the programs will reduce recidivism.
Although a seemingly simple task, building the inventory required coordination and effort. Agency leaders sent a list of the programs in ICON to wardens at the state’s nine correctional facilities to determine which were currently in use. After eliminating those no longer active, central agency staff helped wardens organize the remaining 79 programs into three categories:
- Evidence-based. These programs have been proved to reduce recidivism through rigorous research. Staff used several sources, including the Results First Clearinghouse Database, to identify which programs matched to evidence-based models. The department identified 26 such programs across its facilities.
- Essential. These programs have not been proved to affect recidivism, but are deemed essential to helping inmates prepare for community re-entry, for example, psychiatric treatment and employment readiness. Staff identified 15 programs across state facilities as essential.
- Low-priority. These programs do not have a proven impact on recidivism and are not considered essential to re-entry or sentence completion. Low-priority programs include those focused on family support, certain types of job training, and personal development activities. The department identified 38 low-priority programs across its facilities.
This inventory process quantified what administrators and staff knew from experience: the sheer number of programs offered made consistent service delivery within and across facilities nearly impossible. As a result, some evidence-based models were likely not operating as designed or generating expected outcomes.
The inventory also revealed that about half of current programs neither aided in reducing recidivism nor helped transition inmates to the community. While these programs are important to overall offender management and can affect other domains of an individual’s life (such as family functioning), they were consuming valuable staff resources that could be directed to interventions that provide a higher likelihood of success and return on investment.
“We were surprised to see how many low-priority programs were being offered, occupying offenders’ time and staff time,” said Lettie Prell, former research director for the department. Staff workload studies reinforced this finding: Iowa had invested considerable time and resources on programs that did not help meet the core goal of reducing recidivism.
Armed with this information from the program inventory, the state was able to:
- Shift resources to effective programs that better support department goals. Working with staff and wardens, corrections leaders developed and implemented recommendations to consolidate the number of programs while increasing the share of resources for evidence-based options. The department discontinued 42 programs—primarily those that did not aid in re-entry or help reduce recidivism—and reallocated staff to increase the availability of interventions supported by research and data. A reduced number of low-priority programs thus were offered less frequently and staffed with volunteers instead of paid corrections employees.
- Institute new policies and procedures to sustain evidence-based policymaking. The overall reduction in programs, coupled with a sustained focus on allocating staff resources to those shown to reduce recidivism, enabled the Department of Corrections to develop new policies and procedures to sustain this work, including a process to ensure consistent implementation of programs across facilities and screening to consistently identify services that have proved effective.
“The program inventory got us [wardens] talking about the needs within our institutions, [for] evidence-based programs [and not just activities] to keep idle hands busy,” said Sheryl Dahm, warden of the Iowa Corrections Institute for Women. “It got us from sitting on committees to taking action.”
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