Beyond Implementing Evidence-Based Practice: Creating Rehabilitative Experience


Frank Porporino

In the last several decades, correctional services around the world have marched steadily towards greater acceptance of evidence-based practice (EBP). The pessimism of ‘nothing works’ has been pretty much abandoned and most correctional jurisdictions would claim that they are at least trying to implement EBP. 

Of course, there are continuing challenges in some regions of the world where resources are stretched to meet even very basic needs (PRI, 2023). Yet even in some of these parts of the world, we see serious attempts to embrace EBP (Nafuka & Kake, 2015).

Much of what we now accept as EBP flows from an elaboration of the RNR paradigm, a well-researched framework that has guided the design of rehabilitative efforts for the last 30 years. 

In simple terms, the model tells us that we should assess the right kinds of things (i.e., risk factors and criminogenic needs), do the right kinds of things to address these criminogenic factors (i.e., deliver well designed, mostly CBT-type interventions), do those things with the right people (i.e., the higher risk), and do those things in the right way (i.e., engagingly so that individuals will respond). 

Undeniably, the RNR paradigm has helped corrections become more structured, organized and focused in attempting to reduce reoffending. At the same time, however, the success we’ve had in implementing
EBPs, either in the prison context or in the community with individuals under supervision, can at best be given a mixed score card.

We know that correctional agencies face significant challenges when trying to provide ‘rehabilitation’ in environments or under circumstances that often act to mitigate the impact of their efforts. In many ways, the influence of regime factors in prisons and some modes or styles of supervision in the community can easily block or undo the influence of our EBPs.

There is considerable evidence, for example, that the experience of imprisonment can actually increase the likelihood of re-offending (Loeffler & Nagin, 2022), as can the experience of community supervision (McNeill, 2018). Correctional agencies may be able to point to various EBPs they have introduced, but the package of tools and practices they have implemented may still have failed to create an overall ‘rehabilitative’ experience.

Efforts have been made to describe the experience of ‘correctional control’ we impose on individuals (e.g., Crewe, 2011 and his metaphors of depth, weight and tightness), but identifying the precise mechanisms at play that allow some individuals to become more pro-social while in prison or during the course of their community sentence remains very difficult to do (Crewe & Ievins, 2020; Maier & Ricciardelli, 2022; Maruna & Lebel, 2012; Mears et al., 2015). 

The overriding and still unanswered puzzle is how can we run a prison or manage a community sentence as a process of ‘assisted desistance’ (De Vel-Palumbo et al.; Villeneuve et al., 2021), where how we treat individuals and respond to their issues and concerns leads to a positive lived experience that can help them choose to re-build their lives.

Evolving our understanding of EBPs entails going beyond their formulaic application (e.g., assess – prescribe – intervene). It should compel us to consider all of the possible ‘mechanisms of influence’ that can encourage and support desistence (e.g., not just interventions but social-interpersonal factors, activities, environmental features, family engagement, etc.). Over the last several decades, probation in many parts of the world has moved steadily (even if unwillingly) towards a risk-focused, surveillance approach that has generally made probation less effective (Porporino, 2023). Probation leaders and scholars are now calling for a shift that would see probation move instead towards its original intent of giving disadvantaged and disaffected individuals a chance to reframe their lives (i.e., ‘advise, befriend and assist’).  

A new advocacy group of probation leaders in the US has summarized that aspiration nicely “… we call for probation and parole to be substantially downsized, less punitive, and more hopeful, equitable and 
restorative.” Similarly, in arguing for how we can make the prison experience more rehabilitative, the focus is now increasingly on how to go about creating ‘rehabilitative cultures’ rather than just introducing rehabilitative practices.
The late Dr. Ruth Mann, a highly respected UK prison scholar and practitioner describes this kind of culture as “not necessarily the same thing as a happy culture, and certainly not a soft culture. It is more than the prison’s social culture; it includes the prison’s ‘philosophy and fitness for purpose in relation to reducing reoffending” (pp.244). 

Mann (2019) describes 7 key features of rehabilitative cultures, including the over-arching importance of ‘rehabilitative leadership’ to ensure that those features are well developed and sustained (see Diagram below).


Diagram 1: Features of rehabilitative culture, according to Mann (2019).

And so, all this brings us to how we get there. How do we make our methods of ‘correctional control’ (i.e., prison and probation/parole) not just effective at controlling (to serve public safety) but also effective in nudging and supporting individuals towards desistance (which also serves public safety)? What are some of the central issues that need to be dealt with? 

Rising to first in importance, in my view, is that corrections needs to take better care of its staff if we want those staff in turn to adopt a more caring and supportive ethos. 

Evidence shows convincingly that both community and institutional corrections staff can fall easily into compassion fatigue, feeling over-extended, exhausted, unappreciated, and unnecessarily burdened and confused by the heavily monitored managerialist and accountability cultures we’ve created (Norman & Ricciardelli, 2022). 

There are serious consequences for mental and emotional well-being and there is evidence that the longer staff tenure in the job, the worse it gets. Even in Canada, where our staffing ratios are more reasonable, rates of reported mental health concerns have been shown to be worrisomely high for both community corrections staff and those working in custody settings (Ricciardelli et al., 2019). Correctional work has become a career path that may no longer be seen as especially rewarding for individuals with any semblance of human-service orientation. It may attract instead individuals with a punitive bent. 

Attending to staff well-being and morale has become a critical issue in the correctional world and we need to start making serious efforts in responding to the emotional toll of working in our field, understanding and rooting out its causes and giving this work the respect it deserves as a demanding, multi-layered, multi-tasking human-service avocation, not just a job to cope with. 

Incidentally, I believe this applies whether we are talking about the probation or parole officer in the community, the social worker or psychologist working in our prisons, or the teacher, shop instructor, nurse, case manager or prison officer. In a true EBP world, they should all be committed to the same mission of helping to turn around the disengaged and disaffected.

Part of giving correctional work the respect it deserves entails giving staff a meaningful say in how we manage and change the nature of their work. It shouldn’t be at all surprising that front-line staff will naturally interpret and modify policy and practice in their own ‘real world’ according to their own personal values and assumptions. 

We need to learn how to manage the fact that many of our current EBPs can be easily miss-applied, superficially applied or even counter-productively applied. The elements may be there but the substance is often missing. For example:

• Risk/Needs Assessments may be completed but only perfunctorily and not used motivationally to engage individuals; not used appropriately for referrals; often getting overridden, especially for lower risk cases (where these assessments are actually most accurate); 
• Confirmatory bias can enter easily into correctional work where staff will tend to select and weigh information that confirms their particular views of risk, and with miss-perception of causality leading to simplistic solutions for managing risk; 
 • Assessment that is not carefully attuned and calibrated to the social/cultural context can perpetuate bias and disadvantage instead of correcting it;
• Limited available programs and services can become a ‘catch-all’, often used to punish non-compliance rather than addressing a real need;
• Program delivery can fall into becoming lackadaisical and uninspiring without significant facilitator skills;
• Case planning can evolve into being neither collaborative nor especially rich in substance or focus or linked with assessment; 
• Since paperwork is what is typically monitored … a CYA mentality prevails instead of a focus on quality of relationships; interactions end up occurring mostly around procedural issues, rule enforcement, paperwork completion and data entry; 
• Practice can become easily ‘routinised’, habitual and bureaucratic; 
• Practice paralysis can easily emerge where even well-trained staff lose faith in the relevance of EBP for the defiant, resistant or indifferent individual. And so staff revert quickly to a directive, authoritarian style to regain control! 
Now, of course organizations will often collude in letting this lack of stick-to-itiveness to EBPs persist; through unsound policies and procedures, poor oversight and supervision of staff, lack of quality assurance for critical decision making, and an unhelpful value base with a tendency towards over-precaution and blame, etc. (Viglione, 2019). But another underpinning culprit in my view is how we have bounded and over-simplified our core concept of RISK
There is a prevailing delusion in our field that because we can predict risk of reoffending to some degree better than chance, we therefore understand risk. In reality, assessing risk, and understanding what can elevate or mitigate risk for a given individual, is a continuously complex process.
It requires ongoing observation and ‘good judgement’ that is balanced, reasoned, unbiased, remains well informed of subtle change in circumstances and can integrate multiple, probabilistic, and potentially conflicting cues to arrive at an understanding of the person at a given moment in time. A desistance-focused perspective also needs to consider aspirations, obstacles (including needs not directly ‘criminogenic’), motivation and protective factors that can help people choose not to offend, understand how all of these elements might work together and interact, and the extent of their protective quality. 
There is no simple formula that can ‘fix’ individuals so that risk is reduced (Porporino, 2010). It depends on helping individuals unravel, and finding different ways of dealing with, a complex web of factors than can underpin risk. 
One of the key problems in our approach to introducing EBPs in my view is that we have turned our staff in many ways into technicians, asking them to accept the results of the tools we’ve instructed them to use, over-simplifying analysis of individual risk as captured by a limited and fairly vaguely defined set of risk factors (and more recently by asking them to accept the results of increasingly sophisticated AI algorithms even though no one really knows how they work).
If we want our staff to truly embrace EBP then I would argue we need to focus instead on creating a culture of curiosity and commitment to continuous improvement in how they can conceptualize and contextualize risk, and how they can then share that understanding with individuals under their care to support disentangling their personal and particular ways out of risk (Creavin et al., 2022). 
Applying EBP, in essence, has to become what correctional professionals themselves define as occupational professionalism, not just what the agency asks them to do.
I would argue as well that we need to go beyond training staff in core competencies and skills and work more deliberately in attracting and developing a workforce with the attitudes and values that can coalesce rather than keep colliding with a desistance-supportive ethos.
Training staff to add structure and focus can make a difference, but in the end it’s the ability of staff to develop and sustain a Therapeutic Correctional Relationship with individuals that will matter most, what Sarah Lewis (2016) in the UK has narrowed in as encompassing — acceptance, respect, support, empathy and belief. 
Adroitness in enabling and sustaining a positive relational climate, both in prisons and in the community, is at the core of effective practice. Importantly, I believe, is the fact that these relational and dispositional qualities of individuals can perhaps be developed and refined to a degree, but they are not easily ‘trainable’ if they’re not there.
If we want to imbue corrections with a different ethos of care and support, then we need to find ways to recruit more of the people who can do it. Incidentally, there is evidence that staff with high levels of these personal, relational qualities can have considerable impact on reoffending, as much if not more than structured interventions (Raynor et al., 2014).
I’m certainly not suggesting that we shouldn’t pursue efforts to structure practice through training, but we have to accept that staff will be typically resistant to change they didn’t ask for, implementation will be difficult and usually strain organizational capacity to monitor and correct, staff will invariably differ in how well they can learn new skills or become committed to applying them, change in how staff begin relating with offenders may emerge but unfortunately often doesn’t last, and there will always be some drift back to preferred ways when the new ways are perceived as not working. Rapid transformation isn’t possible.
Welcoming staff in co-designing incremental evidence-informed change may be more successful, but what will ultimately buttress the development of a stronger rehabilitative ethos is the quality of our staff, with the attitudes, values, beliefs and interpersonal styles that suit 
correctional work. 
And that brings me to my last point; the importance of giving both our line staff and our managers and leaders a much more nuanced, integrated and less confined (restricted) theoretical understanding of desistance from offending. When we cut to the chase, our work in corrections is about helping people to change and grow within a social context where they previously had difficulty adjusting and adapting. 
In my view, to do that means that we should embrace and apply ALL that we know about the human change process, not just what we might have learned from one perspective.
In the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant each of the blind men is concluding something different because they are touching only one part of the elephant. Similarly, in our struggle to understand offending, if we use only one theoretical perspective, we will miss seeing the entire picture. 
Offending and the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant - Illustration by JUSTICE TRENDS according to information provided by the author.

Each practice framework I show as one part of the elephant has its own particular focus and features but there really is no need to see these frameworks as working in competition. Integration means that a one-size-fits all approach is resisted, and in its place, model pluralism is adopted to enable change to happen, and to understand what might initiate it, direct it, sustain it and finally consolidate it. 

To quickly illustrate what I mean, RNR certainly offers us a straightforward and compelling explanation of what key dynamic risk factors need to change, but it doesn’t really give us much specificity or clarity about the ‘how’ of change. 

Self-Determination Theory is considered foundational in psychology in explaining what underlies motivation to change, where a sense of competence, autonomy and relatedness is both what fuels the change process and then supports persistence. 

This is fully consistent with the principles of Positive Criminology that suggest we should focus more on what may be emotionally uplifting for individuals rather than deflating. There is evidence, for example, that the influence of criminogenic risk begins to diminish with the emergence of positive emotions like optimism, hope, self-efficacy and psychological flexibility (Woldgabreal et al., 2016).

Strength and values-oriented paradigms like GLM similarly emphasize agency and a collaborative relationship with the individual that can encourage them to strive towards primary goals that give all of us some sense of life satisfaction and well-being. 

Desistance theory reminds us that the path to finding reasons for change is individualized, identity change is not a linear process, some setbacks are inevitable, and trying to force change is counterproductive. 

Restorative Justice argues for moral reparation as a key factor in supporting desistance, what the desistance paradigm refers to as satisfying the need for redemption. And finally, there is now growing recognition of what’s been referred to as our ‘residual obligation’ in corrections to address inequalities, marginalization and the impact of trauma, all of which entails a particularly specialized, knowledge-informed practice framework.

Practice frameworks operate as conceptual maps offering distinct but complementary perspectives (Ward & McDonald, 2022). Each has its own set of core values and principles and multiple frameworks may apply for any given individual in addressing the complexities and challenges of their particular way out of crime. 

But at the end of the day, how we pursue EBP should mean that all of our processes, procedures, policies, programs, community links, agency values and modes of interaction with individuals should be consistent with ALL that we know about the human change process, and about desistance from offending in particular.

Correctional practice should of course be grounded in evidence, but it should also rely on sense and sensitivity; sense in how we incorporate a broad range of evidence into the design and delivery of our services to offenders and sensitivity in how we go about nudging change gradually but steadily rather than forcing and shaping it within time-limited interventions (Porporino, 2010). 

This isn’t easy to do for either correctional agencies or individual staff, but good correctional work isn’t easy to do and if we try to make it easier it won’t work.


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Frank Porporino has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a close to 50-year career in corrections as a front-line practitioner, senior manager, researcher, educator, trainer, and consultant. Frank has promoted evidence-informed practice throughout his career and his contributions have been recognised with awards from a number of associations including the ACA, ICCA, Volunteers of America and International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA). Currently he is Editor of the new ICPA practitioner-oriented journal, Advancing Corrections, Chair of the ICPA R&D Network, member of the ICPA Practice Transfer Advisory Comittee and Board Member and Secretary for the ICPA-North America Chapter.


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