Agencies ‘Need to Believe’ in Reform for Meaningful Change

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Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

In order for true and authentic criminal justice reform to work, a recent study from the University of Kansas (KU) has found that the advocates and agencies implementing the change need to believe “that it is legitimate” in order for the true reform to take root. 

The latest study, written by Danielle Rudes, Shannon Portillo, and Faye Taxman was published in the British Journal of Criminology, and has highlighted the importance that mindset has on community corrections agencies when fighting for change. 

For the study, the researchers worked with eight federal community corrections agencies to start Contingency Management — “an evidence-based practice used to help those convicted of drug offenses set and achieve goals to end addiction.” 

Even though every agency saw the practice as legitimate enough to consider implementation, two sites ultimately never adopted the framework, four experimented with it, and two continued to use it after the study ended. 

The researchers dove into these findings, and noted that even if staff recognized that a practice or new framework would be beneficial, it wasn’t enough to help clients unless the staff recognized its legitimacy, efficiency and effectiveness. 

Moreover, the researchers also found that the agencies which found the Contingency Management plan sustainable said they would rate their beliefs strongly in terms of “cognitive legitimacy” and “pragmatic legitimacy.”

“We’ve seen millions of dollars spent by institutions on evidence-based practices in community corrections settings, but there is very little research on if the reforms stick after researchers leave,” said Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs & administration at KU and co-author of the study. 

“It is not enough to show that reforms are effective or efficient,” Portillo continued. “Workers must view them as legitimate and aligned with their organization’s goals.”

The researchers also found that a reform plan’s implementation and sustainability were not impacted if leadership saw it as legitimate or effective, but rather, sustainability was only reached when the staff themselves believed in the change and saw it as “worth their time.”

Key reasons that an agency could not sustain a reform practice were identified as when workers and management talked about the reform but ultimately were unsure of what it meant, or how they could find a way to make it fit in their daily operations.

Moreover, researchers also identified that a reason why a new reform practice was not sustained was that it’s “simply not enough” for leadership to tell workers that it’s important for improving the justice system. 

Ultimately, Portillo says it has to be the workers that see change as “worthwhile” and “worth their time to change their behaviors and workplace practices” for reform to be sustainable. 

Danielle Rudes is an Associate Professor of Criminology, Law & Society, Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE!) at the Schar School of Policy & Government in George Mason University.

Shannon Portillo Ph.D., is the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at the KU Edwards Campus and an Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas.

Faye Taxman, Ph.D., Faye S. Taxman, Ph.D.,  is a University Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government and the Executive Director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence at George Mason University.  This study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and represents the opinions of the authors 

The full study can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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