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Remarks on Reentry at the 2018 National Project Safe Neighborhoods Conference

Date

Following are Director Muhlhausen's prepared remarks given at the Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) Conference panel on reentry Panel. The panel was moderated by Dr. Angela Moore, NIJ, and Dr. Muhlhausen was joined by Dr. Marie Garcia, NIJ, and Dr. Grant Duwe, research director at the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Thank you, Angela, and thanks to all of you for being here.

My name is David Muhlhausen and I am the Director of the National Institute of Justice.

Earlier this year I was also named the Executive Director of President Trump’s Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry, or Reentry Council for short.

Given my roles leading both NIJ and the Reentry Council, offender reentry has been one of the leading issues on my mind. I’m very glad to have the opportunity to be part of this panel, and particularly to speak alongside my colleagues Drs. Angela Moore and Marie Garcia from NIJ.

At NIJ, our mission is to advance justice through research and science. Our work spans a wide portfolio that includes every aspect of the criminal and juvenile justice fields. In all of our work, we aim to answer the most pressing and important questions of the field.

Corrections is a vitally important part of our work and an area of criminal justice that is particularly close to my heart. In the early part of my career, I was a manager at a juvenile correctional facility in Baltimore. This experience gave me insight into the day-to-day workings of corrections, and it has been an invaluable perspective to bring to NIJ. One of the most important parts of our work at NIJ is translating research into practice. To do this, we always have to keep the ground-level perspective in mind.

Before joining NIJ, I spent 18 years with the Heritage Foundation, a public policy think tank just a few blocks from the Capitol in Washington, DC. At the Heritage Foundation, my research areas included reentry, recidivism, and program evaluation. I have a deep research interest in corrections, and am glad to hear about the work many of you are doing to improve policy and practice through empirical research and rigorous evaluation findings.

Since joining NIJ, it’s been a privilege to see the corrections world through a different lens. It’s an exciting time to be doing good work in this field. And it couldn’t be a more important time to examine, understand, and improve our efforts related to reentry.

As everyone in this room knows, reentry, recidivism, and crime are persistently linked problems in America. We hear the numbers over and over: 95% of inmates in state and federal prisons will be released eventually, and studies have consistently shown high rates of recidivism, with more than three-quarters of released offenders rearrested within five years. I’m preaching to the choir when I say this is a serious public safety problem, as well as devastating for the lives of the offenders trapped in the revolving doors of America’s prisons and jails.

Corrections is a truly fascinating field, both because of its complexity and high stakes, and because of the immense opportunity for improvement and good work. Reentry is a multifaceted issue, with many unanswered research questions. Rigorous research and evaluation can inform and transform our reentry work, as well as the corrections field writ large. As the director of a research agency, you can imagine what an exciting prospect that is for me.

I’ve also been thinking about reentry through a slightly different lens as the Executive Director of the Reentry Council.

The Reentry Council is mandated to develop recommendations for evidence-based reforms that will prevent crime, facilitate reentry, and reduce recidivism. This is a tall order. But we have a strong team that is up for the task.

The Reentry Council includes the heads of a dozen federal departments and offices.We’re bringing together agencies including the Department of the Treasury, Veteran’s Affairs, Education, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and many others. Some of these agencies might not have an obvious relevance to the justice system, but we’ve found their insight to be invaluable in taking a holistic approach to preventing crime and facilitating reentry.

The Reentry Council is a powerful opportunity to bring all federal stakeholders to the table to break down silos between agencies and talk about what we know and what we don’t know when it comes to crime prevention and reentry.

In essence, the Reentry Council has been tasked with answering a simple question: what works in preventing crime and reducing recidivism? But while the question may seem straightforward, the answer is complicated.

To answer in the affirmative, for example, corrections programs intended to reduce recidivism must have rigorous evidence demonstrating that the programs actually do reduce recidivism. This is no easy task.  

We need to make decisions based on rigorous research, not anecdotes. The stakes are simply too high to pursue a program that makes us feel good or that we think might work because it “seems to” be effective based on anecdotal evidence.

The criminal justice policy arena is filled with assertions about what is or is not effective in reducing crime. Many of these assertions are based only on anecdotal or non-scientific evidence, since all too often there is a lack of empirical research to judge the accuracy of specific claims.

A key problem with anecdotal observations is the absence of a counterfactual condition — the ability to know what would have happened in the absence of the program.

For example, noting that crime rates declined after a particular state adopted certain criminal justice reforms is not rigorous evidence. Since the mid-1990s, crime rates have fallen practically everywhere. In fact, general claims that certain policies or “reforms” led to declining crime rates in a particular state likely confuses correlation with causation. Socioeconomic factors and other criminal justice policies may have played a significant role in changing crime rates. Crime rates may have continued to decline without the “reforms.” Or the “reforms” may have slowed the decline. We simply do not know the impact of the reforms. Public safety is far too important to rely on such flimsy evidence. 

Another example are claims that some states have reduced rates of recidivism among former prisoners. How recidivism is defined between comparison periods should be taken into account before sweeping conclusions can be made. Different definitions can yield different results.

One such definition change is how some states have reduced recidivism as measured by reincarceration. When a state changes which offenses and technical violations will and will not result in revocations, it will likely impact their rates of recidivism. But this policy change does not mean that reform efforts were successful in changing the behavior of former inmates. It simply suggests that these states reduced reincarceration rates by redefining which offenses or technical violations result in revocations. Comparing an old definition to the new definition is comparing apples to oranges. Again, public safety is far too important to rely on such weak evidence.

This is where the Reentry Council comes in. The Reentry Council is focusing on identifying effective programs that are supported by rigorous scientific evidence. Our mission is to identify evidence-based measures to prevent crime, improve collaboration between federal agencies, decrease duplicative efforts within government, and facilitate successful reentry.

This is a big job, but it is exciting, important work.

We are working to produce recommendations that will save taxpayer dollars, strengthen public trust in the corrections and criminal justice systems, and help former prisoners the skills to live productive and law-abiding lives. All of this is to the ultimate end of improving public safety.

Reentry Council Activities to Date

Since beginning our work in April of this year, the Reentry Council has been busy.

We’ve hosted productive Council meetings, in an effort to understand the ongoing efforts within and between each member department that can help prevent crime, reduce recidivism, and improve public safety.

The White House has held listening sessions with federal prison wardens and law enforcement leaders to learn more about their needs and how the federal government can support them.

In a focus group this fall, a panel of experts discussed diversion and prosecution as key elements of the crime prevention and reentry process. Our discussion included an overview of diversion policies across the United States, the evidence base around diversion policies and programs, the key strengths and challenges of these programs, as well as recommendations to the Council about how diversion and prosecution are effective in preventing crime and improving reentry.

A meeting last month focused on juvenile involvement with the criminal justice system. Experts gave an overview of the characteristics of youth that come into contact with the juvenile justice system, case processing decisions that are important to consider in interventions to reduce future offending, key risk and protective factors to consider in developing strategies to prevent and intervene with offending behaviors, and youth mentorship.

I was particularly excited to host this focus group, because the research division of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recently joined NIJ, and we were able to garner their experience in this important discussion. I’m looking forward to the juvenile justice perspective they will bring our work at NIJ .

Also as part of the Reentry Council’s activities, NIJ hosted a Research for the Real World seminar on What Works in Offender Reentry. During the seminar, both researchers and corrections professionals discussed how they promote offender reentry in the prison and community environments.

Site visits have been key among our Reentry Council activities. I’ve toured nearly a dozen correctional facilities and made it a priority to meet with and learn from leaders of state, local, and federal departments of corrections, and many others doing this work across the country.

During my time here in Kansas City this week, I will meet with the Kansas City Police Department to learn more about their focused deterrence program and how it works to improve public safety and reduce recidivism.

So we’ve done a lot. But all of this only scratches the surface of the progress we need to make to understand what works in reducing recidivism, and how to implement these programs to actually effect change.

We’re always learning. One of the reasons I’m glad to be able to address you today is to have the opportunity to put forward a call for ideas. Part of our duty in the Reentry Council is to collect as much information as we can on innovative programs, services, policies, and practices that aim to improve our justice system.

CrimeSolutions.gov

I could talk all day about the Reentry Council, but I would also like to take a few minutes to speak about some of the reentry work done by NIJ.

When I think about reentry, my thoughts boil down to two words: What Works?

What works — we throw that term around a lot in criminal justice. Sometimes we use it so much that it becomes more of a buzzword than a critical part of a meaningful conversation. When I say “what works,” I mean what has rigorous research and empirical evidence shown to be effective in pushing the needle on these issues? 

One of the NIJ programs I am most proud of is designed to answer exactly that question. NIJ’s CrimeSolutions.gov is a clearinghouse for rigorously evaluated justice system programs. It ranks programs and practices as “Effective,” “Promising,” or “No effects.” CrimeSolutions.gov can be a valuable tool for corrections leaders as you consider what programs to implement.

So far, CrimeSolutions.gov has rated more than 560 programs, including programs in crime prevention, community corrections, recidivism, and reentry.

It can both shed light on effective and promising programs, and warn against implementing programs that have been shown to have no effects. The website currently includes more than 150 corrections and reentry-focused programs and practices.

We’re working to increase the number of programs evaluated by the gold standard for research design, randomized controlled trials. We’re also planning to increase the number of replication studies, particularly on the programs we’ve rated as “Effective” or “Promising.”

We’re constantly working to increase the rigor of CrimeSolutions.gov ratings. If you aren’t familiar with CrimeSolutions, I highly encourage you to use it as a resource.

CrimeSolutions.gov is far from our only work on reentry.

Earlier this year, NIJ released a Corrections Strategic Research Plan. There are a lot of components to these priorities, but all of them ultimately aim to improve our understanding of how to prevent individuals from entering the corrections system and how to better prepare incarcerated individuals for their reentry into the community. Our Corrections Strategic Research Plan will guide our research priorities moving forward over the next five years.

This year we have also brought on two practitioners-in-residence, including one law enforcement officer and one corrections expert. One of my top priorities as NIJ director is to ensure that our work and organization don’t live in an ivory tower. Our practitioner-in-residence program is one of the many ways we ensure that never happens. Through this program, criminal justice leaders join NIJ in-house, giving us a direct line of connection to the field. They’re deeply involved in NIJ, participating in meetings and decisions and pursuing independent research projects over the course of their residencies.

Our current corrections practitioner is Reena Chakraborty. She comes to us from the District Of Columbia Department of Corrections, where she is a Supervisory Statistician and Chief of Strategic Planning and Analysis. Dr. Chakraborty is continuing her work with the DC Department of Corrections while in residence at NIJ, serving as a liaison with the field and helping us establish connections to enable us to engage in mutually beneficial research in the years to come.

I’m excited to support this program at NIJ and am eager to see the work that our practitioners-in-residence pursue, both during their residencies and beyond.

NIJ also has a new publication series called Notes from the Field. We founded Notes from the Field last year as a platform to learn from leading criminal justice voices. In these articles, criminal justice practitioners to share their expertise and promising practices on pressing issues, including reentry. We recently launched a Notes from the Field series of articles focused on corrections and reentry, and hope to publish many more articles in the future.

I could speak all day about recidivism, the Reentry Council, and NIJ’s work in helping to inform the justice system about what works to prevent crime, but I’ll stop now to turn it over to my fellow panelists and then our discussion.

I want to thank you again for being here, and thank the Bureau of Justice Assistance for giving us the opportunity to have this panel. Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.