Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Saying Adieu to NASC

Kim may have more to say about the recent NASC conference in future posts, but I want to tie up a couple of loose ends I left hanging in other posts about it before I wipe my eye and move on. I promised a review of findings from the National Center for State Courts' survey of public attitudes about sentencing. But first, I'd like to give a quick note to the work of the presenters whose panel I chaired there on Drug Treatment & Re-entry.

Doug Marlowe of the University of PA's Treatment Research Institute, Harry Wexler of TRI and National Development & Research Institutes, and Paul Bellatty, research manager for the OR DOC (and doctor of quantitative genetics!!) focused on the application of evidence-based practice to the topic area. All the presentations were high quality and demonstrated the importance of taking time to assess offender risk and need and to assign programs designed to fit each resulting type of offender (high or low risk times high or low need). The best part was the documentation of improved, lowered recidivism rates as the result of the careful matching, avoiding wasted resources and actual increased criminal behavior (when low risk, low need types are mixed with high risk types). These three gentlemen showed not only that the "nothing works" litany is myth, which we all know by now, but also how careful assessment and evaluation produce lessons that can result in enhanced public safety beyond just the studies themselves. Very good work.

As for the NCSC survey findings, I already mentioned results related to corrections in an earlier post, but there was much more to Judge Warren's presentation. Pulling from the exec summary he passed out, I can give you the key bullet points as you wait for the full text to come up on their website:
  • Sentencing attitudes differ dramatically by the type of crime, particularly violent v. nonviolent
  • Rehabilitation is seen as important, but prisons are not seen as up to the task
  • Perceptions of bias exist against lower income and minority offenders
  • There is broad support for alternative sentencing of nonviolent offenders, particularly through problem-solving courts
  • Blame for sentencing inadequacies is not directed mainly at judges
  • High support exists for sentencing reform, with judges playing a major, but not leading role
  • Sentencing attitudes differ by education, race, and party, and the more informed are more supportive of alternatives to prison

The NCSC also did a survey of state chief justices' attitudes about sentencing reform. The judges' biggest priorities were to reduce over-reliance on incarceration and to promote alternatives to it. Then came elimination of inappropriate racial and ethnic disparities, promotion of greater flexibility and judicial discretion, provision of greater rationality, and expansion of use of evidence-based practices. Promoting sentencing commissions and guidelines, as noted in an earlier post, came in last. The justices were very big on problem-solving courts, risk assessment tools, and measures of effectiveness such as recidivism and program completion. If you wonder why we've combined "corrections" and "sentencing" as the twin topics of this blog, this should answer the question. The overlap of interests is immense.

I've gone on and on probably to TMIville, I know, but it was a very good conference, with kudos to Mark Bergstrom and the PA commission staff and to Rick Kern and the VA commission staff who sponsored it and pulled it off. Enough seeds were planted to reap an abundant and necessary harvest if we nurture them well over the next couple of years (sorry, HGTV is on in the background). The impact on corrections and sentencing could be incredible. Time will likely disappoint me some, I know, but I really do think there is potential we haven't see for a long time. Kim and I hope this blog can help play a part. Let us know how/when we can.

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