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Establishing a system based on agency values.

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Classification: A tool for Managing Today's Offenders, a new ACA publication.

Correctional administrators often find themselves trying to balance the value of a classification system between the expectations of two groups: the public, which expects correctional agencies to protect and reassure it, and corrections, which needs to follow sound correctional practice based on realistic resources, constraints and expectations.

The daily experiences of many administrators underscore the diversity of the two groups. The classification system may also be affected by the demands and expectations of the two groups. Sometimes the public demands changes to classification systems overnight. A tragic incident may lead to classification criteria changes, and the inmate population may be moved to accommodate the expectations of the public or corrections.

Correctional administrators should resist allowing a single major event, such as a riot or a crime committed in the community by an inmate, to dictate their agency's classification practices. The agency's classification system should be kept in place even during critical periods. This is not to say that classification systems should not be flexible. Rather, changes should be made based on research, planning and quantifiable data and not in response to stressful and emotional events.

Some staff may feel the classification system deprives them of the flexibility they need to place inmates in available bed space. This is especially true when crowded conditions and court-ordered caps are in place. Staff may feel that the classification system does not truly reflect the operational or programmatic needs of the agency. Administrators often make quick decisions regarding the value of classification, leaving staff in a state of discord.

It is important to set the value of a classification system. This can be done by studying the public and corrections for a common ground for the system to operate. It focuses decision-making priorities and policies. The foundation of a classification system should be based on what the agency determines will benefit both groups. Administrators should facilitate a review of the values of the public and corrections and establish a true value or foundation based on expectations and sound correctional principles.

The following are some examples of values that can be created for classification systems:

1. Public safety is the primary consideration in all decision making regarding inmate classification, including programming and housing assignments.

2. The classification system's primary function is to manage population by identifying the nature of, and providing solutions to, crowding.

3. The primary consideration of the classification system is to manage the day-to-day activities of the correctional system to ensure cost-effective use of bed space, staff and program resources.

The purpose of identifying classification missions is to transform them into values--to change the written word in policy manuals sitting on shelves to values most people in the organization understand and accept.

Establishing the Process

Once the value for classification is created or recreated, it must be made into a process that will be accepted and understood by both the public and corrections. Many administrators learn that writing memos or holding staff meetings alone do not generate the energy needed to transform a mission into a value.

The question is, how do we communicate words to key stakeholders that demonstrate desired behavior? Many well-meaning and thought-out mission statements have just remained on paper while others have developed into a spirit and practice in which the public and corrections have taken pride and ownership.

Some administrators have even hired consultants to come into their agencies to evaluate needs, establish systems and train staff. The product has sometimes not met well with the expectations of the organization. The problem often is not with the written words provided by consultants. The problem may be resistance from the public or corrections to "buy-in" and cooperate to create the classification system for mutual benefit.

The following are keys to establishing and maintaining a successful classification system:

Information. Sharing and receiving information regarding the public's and corrections' expectations and values of classification systems help to better focus the issues and the value to be created, create an increased opportunity for a buy-in from staff and other key stakeholders, and serve as an early warning system for identifying potential barriers.

Organization. The development of a methodical management process involving a number of people within the agency and the community for problem-solving and decision-making activities reduces discord, sets priorities, and increases the likelihood of informed decision making.

The organizational makeup must effectively encompass all groups. The energy needed to effect desired change is affected by exclusion of one or more groups, whether or not the exclusion was intended. For example, a classification system that works well with male inmates will not necessarily have the same success with female inmates.

Integrity. Once the value has been created and the classification process implemented, the role of top management is to maintain the priority of the system. Many have found this aspect to be difficult to do, especially when a powerful person requests a movement of inmates that violates the dictates of the system.

Administrators are often reminded that every action they take creates a value or impression. When exceptions are made regarding the classification system, it often sends the message that the value is being reduced to "just a sentence in a policy manual." When this practice continues, the probability increases of a major incident that may cause the administrator and his or her organization undue criticism and embarrassment.

This does not mean that once a classification system is in operation, it should not be changed. Rather, the classification system should reflect the new values generated from the public and corrections.

Communicating Information

Many classification systems use data that are essential for creating sound public policy regarding correctional matters. Sometimes these data are not properly translated into information that could be provided at the fight moment to enhance rational approaches to complex correctional issues.

Unfortunately, information that might affect the outcome of a law is often not known until correctional budgets or operations are affected. Administrators may not realize the importance of such information or the information may not be accessible at the time needed. An effort must be made to find out the information prior to the need for it.

Another aspect of communicating information centers on educating the public. The general public does not know who is in prison and why. The information used and generated by the classification system can provide this information about corrections to the public.

It also can place administrators in the role of "information provider," rather than advocates of one position over another. Administrators can then take the position of "standing on high ground" on sensitive issues because they are simply reporting facts that normally are not challenged as to bias.

Some Suggestions

The following is a summary of suggestions to help correctional administrators manage their classification systems:

1. Set the value for classification. Create or recreate the usefulness of classification by establishing its value based on the public's and corrections' expectations and needs.

2. Establish the process. Translate the classification system's value into practice.

3. Maintain the integrity of the classification system. Demonstrate behavior that reflects the values of the classification system, and encourage change through a specific process and not through vague exceptions.

4. Communicate information. Use the wealth of information used and generated by classification systems to help develop and support sound, rational correctional policy.

Correctional administrators know that satisfying the needs and expectations in terms of inmate classification of both the public and corrections is a difficult task. To do so, administrators need to find a common ground between the two groups and stand firm. The agency's classification system should be based on values that can be translated into a process. Although the process must be championed by the administrator, correctional staff and the public, all must be open to change that is supported by new information and changing needs.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Aiken, James E.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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