Merging research and correctional practice.
What is evidence-based practice, (EBP)? The answer to that simple question turns out to be anything but simple. Listening to the debate in recent years, I've found at least three different answers circulating through EBP discussions. The first is the classic, "what works" definition, which draws from medicine and emphasizes basing practice on the most rigorous research methods. In corrections, this has come to mean a reliance on experimental research design and the use of meta-analyses to summarize results. A second use of EBP refers to variations of what might be called the "Canadian Model," which is made up of several specific, interconnected principles designed to guide interventions with offenders. In many presentations of this model only three of the principles are discussed: risk, needs and responsivity. In this limited form, traditional case management approaches (with better assessments) are disguised as EBP. These two definitions have an uneasy alliance at times, since few of the principles of the second definition come close to meeting the standard of proof implicit in the first definition.
Less often, we hear of a third approach. This definition draws from a broad range of sources that contain the best available evidence, without any methodological litmus test. It also advocates the practical application of both the methods and techniques of research, in addition to EBP's spirit of critical thinking and objective inquiry, as part of a comprehensive problem-solving strategy. Efforts to define performance measures, to influence organizational culture and development, or to create agile or high-performing organizations all fall within this perspective. This approach seeks to stretch beyond the often too narrow evaluation of particular interventions. The articles in this issue are intended to illustrate ways that this expanded approach can be used to help corrections accomplish its multiple missions. They also, I hope, will begin to correct what I see as an imbalance between "evidence-based practice" and "practice-based research."
In practice-based research, the topics studied are drawn more directly from the issues and concerns of practitioners and less from the theories and debates existing within the research literature. This is not the fault of the researchers; producing basic knowledge, testing theories and perfecting their methods is their profession. But when researchers talk about how something works, they are referring to the precise details of a causal explanation. When practitioners talk about how something works, they are asking how they can actually do what a causal explanation implies should be the result of their actions. This is part of the reason that communication alone is seldom the solution. Researchers, for instance, frequently prescribe more communication with practitioners so they can convince practitioners of the value of research. Less often, researchers resolve to listen better in order to appreciate the value of practice.
The main problem we face in correctional research is that most of the talent and funding comes from outside corrections. It would be difficult for us to fathom a $50 billion-a-year industry in the private sector that spent almost none of its resources on research and development, but that is exactly what U.S. corrections does. The reliance on research the federal government funds also means that the corrections field has never developed its own infrastructure of correctional researchers working for corrections agencies.
We need to shift the center of gravity from the research community toward the practitioner community by focusing on the integration of research and correctional practice. This will require the corrections field to develop an infrastructure within corrections to encourage, guide and use research as part of its routine operations. The solution is not to turn practitioners into researchers or vice versa. Rather, it is to develop effective partnerships between the two, so each group can bring its respective strengths to the process through a constructive division of labor.
How this can work is very clearly on display in many of this issue's articles. Staton-Tindall and her colleagues report on a very successful 10-year partnership between Kentucky Department of Corrections professionals and University of Kentucky researchers. Also in this issue, diZerega and Shapiro report on a new case management tool developed though a unique partnership between agencies and researchers. Serin and Shturman report on the role of correctional staff; Boone and Sperber discuss strategic planning for the implementation of "concept mapping"; and Magaletta, McLearen and Morgan look at the delivery of mental health services. These are all creative--and at times provocative--treatments of complex, operational issues. Other articles include a re-examination of the risk principle, a review of new ways of using relapse prevention, and an exploration into the relationship (or lack thereof) between research and policy on sex offenders. Together, these authors have provided thoughtful, and thought-provoking, contributions to the ongoing discussion of the usefulness of research in correctional practice.
By Christopher A. Innes, Ph.D.
Chief, Research and Evaluation
National Institute of Corrections
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|Author:||Innes, Christopher A.|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2007|
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