Directors of Justice Department Science and Research Offices Talk Reentry
Director of the National Institute of Justice Nancy La Vigne, Ph.D., and Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics Alex Piquero, Ph.D., discuss important topics, programs and initiatives related to reentry and recidivism.
Nancy La Vigne: Well Alex this is a very interesting experiment right now because we have agreed to interview each other with no notes, no script, no nothing, yeah but the topic's pretty important huh.
Alex Piquero: Imagine going into me without talking points that's so non-fed-like.
So, the second the second chance month shouldn't be a second chance month it should be a second chance commitment and a second chance year. We should be not focusing on days or events, but processes and we should be focusing on how we improve the human condition when people are incarcerated. As they get out of incarcerated facilities and then what we can do to help them, their families, their friends, and their communities succeed.
Nancy La Vigne: I love that, and I love it for a couple different reasons. One I hate thinking about a topic as important as reentry as a month, but I also think it ties into what we've learned about reentry and it's more of a trajectory it's not a moment in time. We like to talk about it at NIJ as the reintegration process rather than reentry as like okay you're out now what? Do you get do you recidivate or not. So, I really love how you frame that.
Alex: Yeah, that's a great point Nancy. Over the course of your career, you've studied this in depth in lots of different jurisdictions, so you have that experience that you bring now to the table as a leader of NIJ and how it focuses on data, evaluation, research, and what works and what doesn't work. I think the important message I think we both want to communicate to the field I think is that you're right it's a process. It's a lot like people who are trying to quit smoking, or to get off drugs, or to stop drinking that one day doesn't define a person. People make mistakes, some people make serious mistakes. But we all make mistakes, and we can all recover from those mistakes, and be productive members of society.
Nancy: I’ll right so this is not in research speak, dichotomous, this is more looking at trajectories. And you've done a lot of research on longitudinal studies right how does that apply to your thinking about reentry and reintegration
Alex: That's a that's a great question and it's a good challenge to me because early on in my career I was always focused what the field was focused on was when someone fails, and they score one and then they recidivated. But the inverse of that is all the people who succeeded. And instead of focusing on why these people didn't succeed or why these people fail; what let's look at the people who succeeded. What was it about their life their circumstances their um the way they receive services or treatment in facilities and then thereafter when they transition back into the community, what was there to help them what buffered them from recidivating down the road. So, I think that we think about risk factors and protective factors sometimes they are on a continuum sometimes they're just different, and so we need to think about the success stories and why did those people turn out the way they did.
Nancy: Spot on, agree 100 and in fact at NIJ we're really not talking so much about recidivism in the context of reentry research anymore. We're really talking about desistence because we don't like how recidivism is typically measured by failure and by traditional criminal justice system metrics. I have a particular issue with measuring recidivism with rearrest because as you know rearrest measures a lot of things including where police are, and the color of your skin, and where you reside, where police police right. But this notion of desistence really embodies what you're talking about which is looking at metrics of success right. So sure, we want to make sure that people stay crime free, and we want them to find jobs and finding employment is a common metric used in reentry research. But what about retaining employment right and that's a whole different story.
Alex: Yeah, it's getting employed retaining employee or as Bill Wilson once said meaningful employment or gainful employment and I think that we're living right now in a society where people are struggling to make ends meet. You know the world is not a very easy place for a lot of people to live so and those are individuals who aren't coming back into society after some sort of incarcerative stint. Looking for not just a job but a gainful job where they can pay rent and pay health care and those kinds of things. I think Nancy your point about desistance being a process it's a glide path and along that glide path there will be starts and fits and failures and so on and so forth. But we live in a world and in a country where we are built about second chances, and we're built about becoming better versions of ourselves and I would hope to think that the older versions of us are much better human beings than the younger version.
Nancy: I surely hope.
Alex: But it was it was aided by the people and the communities around us and are being afforded those kinds of opportunities and not everybody has those. Think about kids who are growing up in very disadvantaged circumstances. If they go to the buffet table, they might have two options whereas the kid going up and more advantageous opportunities and circumstances has 60 options.
Nancy: It's a smorgasbord.
Alex: Exactly. And the same thing is true when they re-enter society from an incarcerative stint is that what resources do they have at their disposal. Are we doing as a society giving them okay these are the 10 things you need -- this is what your driver's license, this is where you get your voting card, this is where you get your first job, this is where you're going to live for the next three months. Those are the kinds of things they need.
Nancy: And I love that you mentioned that because in the reentry research I've been involved in I spent a lot of time talking the media as you did as an academic and I always got this question like “what is the single biggest thing that would support the successful reintegration of people exiting prison in jail and returning to their communities,” right. And I'm like no no no no, I'm not going to fall into that trap. A lot of people say it's a job, if you get them a job they'll have the income, they'll have Independence they'll be successful. Yes, but we also know that peoples many who enter prison and exit prison have long histories of substance use disorders right. So, you get a job get a paycheck and you're not addressing those other underlying issues, what are you going to spend your paycheck on.
Alex: That reminds me of Cesar Vicario was one of the founding figures in criminology talked about its better prevent crimes than to punish them. So, if we think about the world as investing in kids now, and investing in places now, then the cost is not just a resource economic cost, but the cost is a human cost and that's what we should be focused on when we think about rows and columns in a data set, when we think about all of those people, those are human beings. They have spouses, they have friends, they come from families, they have kids. And we have to think about how we do the punishment, but more importantly, how we do the re-entering and reintegrating into society.
Nancy: I agree wholeheartedly. Well let's talk about what we know about what works and what doesn't. I have some notions on that I expect you do as well.
Alex: I think you know there are things that are really easy to address and things that are more complicated especially from an intervention point of view. So, kids or juveniles, or even adults, who grow up or and or live in disadvantaged environments may not have access to the best jobs, the best food choices in markets, the best opportunities for education or the books they read, or the ability to use the internet in their communities or in schools.
Nancy: Or exposure to violence, or vicarious trauma …
Nancy: … lead poisoning a lot of environmental factors.
Alex: Yeah, I'm glad that you raised those. And so those are the headwinds that come at some people and that's the choices they have are now constrained. It's not that they don't have choices, it's just that they're limited. And so, if I give people a limited set of options and then they don't see paths forward, then we have a bit of an issue and they're going to turn into certain directions and do certain kinds of things. And that's the point about understanding choice versus constrained or situated choice. The same thing is true when they when they leave incarcerated facilities, is to try to give them as many choices as possible, but also to give them the tools that they need to succeed. And so, if we know some of those are not just social skills, training, the ability to ward off deviant peers, cognitive behavioral skills, those are those are individual things. But it's just the person. It's not just one you know the person who makes a decision in context.
Nancy: Yes, absolutely and in fact there's a lot of focus on using risk and these assessment tools to identify people who are higher risk because if you have scarce resources to dedicate towards reentry supports and services you want to focus on people who are at the highest risk and the highest need. But I worry that doing that doesn't really recognize that even though you might be high risk and high need, your needs are going to be different, like my needs would be different from your needs even though we are both categorized as high risk. And the other problem I have with that model is that it doesn't focus on assets. So, there's really little recognition that all of us as humans have talents and I think focusing on those talents can be really helpful in supporting reentry. And we know that through some early studies of motivational interviewing and coaching conducted by supervision officers and that holds great promise and supporting reentry.
Nancy: Yeah, that's why I'm so glad that you're leading this agency because you bring 25, 30 years of knowledge to the table about.
Nancy: Did you have to date me like that?
Alex: Well, I could say too but then people would take you seriously. No, I think that you know what you're talking about and that's the thing that when you engage stakeholders not just policy makers but also practitioners and the media, about let's focus on a variety of different things, but risk isn't the only thing we need to focus on. People come to come to the plate, some people come to the plate with a zero count, some kids come to play with a zero one count, some with a oh and two count, and they'll get one pitch. And we got to think about what that all means for how we think about treating kids when they're kids and then treating them as juveniles and people when they're adults.
Nancy. So, you're very complimentary thank you and acknowledging that I have a little bit of research experience in this space. But what I remember when you were named as The BJS director, and I thought that is a stroke of brilliance because I don't know anybody in the field who has analyzed and published off of more different BJS data sets than you have. And so, I imagine you have your own experience with some of the data that BJS collects on that relate to recidivism. Obviously, the recidivism data is one and I know that BJS has followed cohorts over time and that's really shed new insights into what makes for success and failure.
Alex: That's absolutely true Nancy. I think that but that has been the kind of like the past of BJS. What's really exciting now is that we're doing things that are different. So, we're now linking individual who were released from incarcerated facilities to employment records. We are also looking at the health care needs of pregnant women in incarcerated facilities. We're also doing surveys of parole agencies to see what kinds of reentry services they have at their disposal. What do they have? Do they have any? Then what do they have and if what they have is based on what we know from the evidence. And so, I think that that's the exciting part of what BJS is doing now in terms of data. But I also think back to my work on Pathways to Desistance that it was also funded by the National Institute of Justice that you lead. We followed 1300 serious juvenile offenders in two cities for seven years, of those 1300 kids, over 40 died by the age of 25. I mean that's astronomical. But we also found out, interestingly enough, that those serious violent offenders, the majority of them, stopped committing serious crime by their middle 20s. So, what part of that process of desistance was natural, versus what part of that was aided by treatment and service delivery while they were incarcerated. And I think that tangling of things about what helps people succeed as opposed to what helps people fail is what we should be focused on.
Nancy: Well, and then we know from the redemption literature right that a lot of people when they are arrested in those early years, over time they basically meet the recidivism rates of the general population who had never been arrested during that period, which really points to the need to identify who is truly at highest risk and why.
Alex: Right, that's a great point, and that sweet spot has been around seven or eight years where they approached the non-offenders. But we also have to be very, very careful. These tools these risk needs assessment tools and these prediction tools they make errors.
Nancy: Oh, they do.
Alex: We live in a world of false positive/false negative; we want to be in the true positive, the true negative, but we're not, but when we're thinking about human beings, we have to take that very seriously and we also know that these instruments, and even the treatment that we deliver, doesn't always work for the same people in the same way. You know, for a 14-year-old Hispanic male or a 17-year-old African American woman they may respond differently to treatment...
Nancy: Well, we know that. We know that gender responsive programs are much more effective than generic ones on serving women. I want to pick up on a thread that we were on earlier and that's on risk and needs assessments, because I'm very conflicted about them, frankly. I think that they're a tool in a toolbox that are used for decisions around pre-trial detention and other aspects of the system, and I want to be clear when I'm talking about looking at risks and needs, I'm really looking at them from the context of how to support people in successful reentry and, to your point, even then those risk in these assessments are not perfect. I'm worried a lot about baked-in biases into those instruments and how we might be perpetuating racial biases in using them or using them inappropriately. Even biases around who gets access to scarce programs and services, so we do need to be careful, and when I talk about supporting people returning from prison or jail I often say that we have to be both tailored and holistic and that you really need focus on both of those things and the tailoring assessment tools help us identify how to tailor services to the people who need them, so if someone doesn't suffer from a substance abuse disorder it's not helpful to put them in drug treatment right?
Nancy: But I've seen a lot of examples of state departments of corrections painting with a very broad brushstroke or creating incentives for participation in drug treatment because you can get time off your sentence and people signing up for them who have no histories...
Nancy: ...of substance use disorder so it's really quite complicated, but you invited me to share. I think the question was kind of like if you could do one thing what would it be I don't think you can do one thing I think you have to approach things holistically, but I think the one area that the literature is not as on-point on as it could be is the power of family and family support, which is really essential and most everyone who is incarcerated can name somebody in their life, if not an actual technical family member, blood relative, someone they consider to be a family member to them and a supportive source to them and those family members really do step up and yet we don't do enough to bring them into the process of reintegration before release and we need to do more to support visitation and other forms of communication and you know coming out of a global pandemic, I really am concerned right as I'm sure you are. You've done a lot of research on that.
Alex: Yeah on COVID, I think COVID threw a lot of people, a lot of organizations through a big ringer, but you think about what happened in facilities when they were trying to contain a spread of a virus that no one knew about; inmates were getting sick, staff were getting sick, people were coming in and out of facilities, there couldn't be any more visits, but you always have to think about the bad that just happened to the world for three years. What did we learn that could help? So, well, now we could do more Zoom visits or so free or whatever video visits are. So that doesn't supplement the face-to-face interaction.
Nancy: You cannot replace it. I know there's a lot of concern in the advocacy community that that's going to lead to less in-person visitation.
Alex: Yeah, I think that the ability to now move or pivot to virtual is something that can supplement what we do on a normal basis what we did before the covet pandemic happened. But one thing that came out of the COVID pandemic I think is that a lot of less people were put into facilities and a lot of states and jurisdictions let people out on release early who are close to finishing their sentences and crime did not increase among those individuals or in those jurisdictions, so we learned something here.
Nancy: So that was research that you did?
Alex: That was just a lot of other people did. I was not directly involved.
Nancy: Okay, I mentioned that because we have a solicitation coming out to invite proposals mostly around re-sentencing addressing and correcting for long sentences, but we've included compassionate release in there and that relates to some of these natural experiments we've seen with COVID, so it'll be really interesting to see more research in that space.
Alex: I'm glad that you brought that up because I think what that early research showed about compassionate release is that, okay, yeah, some people need to be incarcerated but do they really need to be incarcerated for that long?
Alex: And that I think is what we saw not just in one city in one little, small study. It was pretty replicated in lots of different places because a lot of people thought, “Oh my gosh now all these people are going to be on the street, we're now going to release all these people and crime is going to go crazy” and it didn't happen and that story came out and then it went away and, as is true with the news cycle, but there's a lesson there and the lesson is finding out the time in which people are ready to be released, but I think that back what you said earlier while ago just made me think about something it's about holistic and tailored. The idea of reentry starts the day someone is sentenced to an incarcerated state that day starts the planning for whenever that individual will be released whether it's in a month, a week, a year, whatever that is, that's when the planning starts and we got to make sure that the departments of corrections in the jails are staffed, not just staffed, but they're a resource to offer the kinds of programs that work not just “Hey we got programming. Oh, and by the way all the slots are filled, so by the way, there's no programming for you.
Nancy: Oh yeah there's such a mismatch and even when they're doing good intake and identifying what the needs are and what programs would be appropriate for what individuals, the availability of those programs and the treatment doesn't always match the needs of the population and so It kind of renders it somewhat useless.
Alex: Absolutely. And that's a staffing issue, but it's also a resource issue. This is not about helping bad people who did bad things, this is about helping people so then they when they come back to the world, they're on a straight and narrow to do good because it's good for them; it's good for their families; it's good for the community; it's good for everybody.
Nancy: Well, thank you Alex. This was a fun experiment. I enjoyed it. I learned new things from you. I hope you've learned a few things from me as well.
Alex: The great thing about being interviewed by you is I get to be interviewed by someone who I've read about and learned from my entire career.
Nancy: And right back at you.
Alex: I’m just so happy that you're leading NIJ.
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