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Notes from the Field: Evidence-Based Practice Research as Responsible Practice
By John Wetzel, National Institute of Justice
Published: 03/11/2019

Prison wall a

It sounds embarrassingly simple: Stop doing things that don’t work and do more of the things that do. Yet we blindly pour millions of dollars into corrections programs and practices without demanding improved outcomes like reduced violence or recidivism. When you consider the stakes of corrections work and the sheer volume of the lives we impact, I see basing decisions and policies on research as the only means to go about responsible practice.

At the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, research has become part of the fiber of who we are as an organization. In 2014 we began a long-term partnership with New York University’s BetaGov, which supports practitioner-led research in the public sector. This partnership has been key for scaling research within our organization. With BetaGov, we have completed and published more than three dozen trials, with hundreds more studies still in progress.

Promoting Trial, Celebrating Error

The only way to improve outcomes is to try something, measure it, and scale it if evaluation shows that it is promising. If it’s not effective, we figure out why, adjust, and try again. A study that shows absent or negative effects isn’t a failure — we learn as much from these studies as we do from studies that show what does work. When we saw mixed outcomes from the research trial of an in-prison swift, certain, and fair (SCF) program, it forced us to look at the policy and design to understand why. We’re now adapting a more consistent policy that builds on strengths in areas of the program that showed positive outcomes.

In Pennsylvania we still struggle with drugs coming into our facilities, and we have tested various ways to curb this problem. We experimented with sending letters to family members to warn them of the consequences of bringing drugs into our facilities. It sounded like a good idea and I thought it would work. But when we measured outcomes, the data told us that the letters didn’t have a positive impact on drugs in our facilities — we actually saw a slight increase in drugs after this trial. Given this result, we won’t waste money on that program. Along a similar vein of experimenting, we tried a new approach to drug interdiction that involved phone monitoring and led to the biggest drug bust in the history of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Keeping an Open Mind

In Pennsylvania, we’ve been willing to study everything. We did a study on aromatherapy in restrictive housing units. I thought this study was ridiculous, but the data told us that aromatherapy does reduce violent incidents, and it’s cheap, so this is something we’re taking to scale. Another study with results that surprised me involved providing more colorful bed linens for inmates. We seem to enjoy especially good outcomes in trials where we’ve introduced additional choice to inmates.

Many of the ideas for studies we carry out come from our line staff. I spent nine years of my career as a corrections officer, but sitting at the top of an 18,000-person agency, it can be difficult to see the on-the-ground implications of policies and protocols. In conducting research, it’s been important to find and implement a mechanism to consistently get input from line staff in a way that is meaningful and measureable. If there’s a complicated problem that we have to solve as an organization, we involve as many staff as we can in the solution. Directors of departments of correction come and go, but ideas with agency-wide buy-in will stay.

Iterate With Inertia

Our research partnership with BetaGov has taught us the importance of rapid iteration. We need to not only employ measurement and iteration, but do this within as short a timeframe as possible. Beginning in 2011, our department made transformational and expansive policy changes over an 18-month period, sparked by a Department of Justice investigation into our use of restrictive housing. In implementing these rapid changes, we developed a greater sense of urgency around conducting research to inform how we do business. This inertia is important. Long bureaucratic timeframes can kill staff enthusiasm and innovative ideas. Without timely turnaround, we lose momentum and enthusiasm, and a study’s results become less relevant.

Corrections isn’t a field known for being agile or receptive to change. Directors of state departments of corrections are always going to face resistance to change. But given high rates of violence in our facilities and recidivism after release, I see the status quo as much more dangerous than trying new things. I’m often asked how Pennsylvania has been able to engrain research into the way we do business, but I don’t know how we could not do anything without measuring it and adjusting it based on the outcomes. I’m shocked by the notion that we would do anything without trying to maximize efficiency, safety, and effectiveness both within our facilities and as inmates reintegrate into their communities. Within our department, research, evaluation, and rapid iteration have become part of our institutional fabric and how we relate to the world.

About “Notes from the Field”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes from the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes from the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

About the Author

John Wetzel, widely recognized as one of the thought leaders in corrections today, was appointed secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in January 2011 by Governor Corbett and reappointed by Governor Wolf in January 2015. During his tenure an elimination of a 24-year average growth of 1500 inmates per year occurred. Wetzel presided over the first population reduction in the Pennsylvania state prison system in over 4 decades, a restructuring of the community corrections and mental health systems, and a re-engineering of internal processes to yield a more efficient system of program delivery. With over 29 years of experience in the corrections field, he has been selected as chair of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center’s Executive Board and as president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. He is a member of Harvard’s Executive Session on Community Corrections. A graduate of Bloomsburg University, he received honorary doctor of laws degrees from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania in May 2016 and Chestnut Hill College in May 2018.

Writing and editorial support was provided by Rianna P. Starheim, a writer with a federal contractor, on assignment at the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.


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