Opinion

Refocusing the Punishment Paradigm

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Any parent can tell you that timeouts, groundings, and other punishments only go so far in encouraging good behavior. If kids are scolded over and over again, the reprimands can lose their effect: Walls go up, and cooperation goes down. But throw in a few high-fives or thumbs-ups to recognize a nice job clearing the dishes or picking up after a baby sister, and attitudes may brighten—and actions may begin to improve.

It’s basic human behavior, the circuitry of motivation. Everybody needs to hear words of encouragement—including those in our criminal justice system.

In fact, one of the most powerful findings in criminology is that rewards are better shapers of behavior than punishments. But that’s not typically how it works for the 4.7 million Americans on probation or parole, the community supervision programs founded for the purpose of redirecting troubled lives. Instead, supervision has become mostly about enforcing the rules—report to your probation officer, attend treatment, etc.—and locking people up when they don’t obey. Corrections professionals call it “Trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em.”

People who commit crimes need to be held accountable for their actions, of course, but the criminal justice system serves a much wider purpose: protecting public safety. In order to cut crime and recidivism rates—and rein in corrections spending—we need to harness what the research says about changing behavior. That means refocusing the punishment model and making the primary mission of supervision to promote success, not just punish failure.

This fundamental transformation is one of a set of proposed paradigm shifts in community corrections highlighted in a new report from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the National Institute of Justice—the product of three years of discussions among leading experts in criminal justice, of which we were a part. Our group sought to identify strategies for probation, parole, and other programs that can both promote public safety and build trust between communities and justice institutions. Other shifts include moving from mass to targeted supervision, concentrating resources on more serious offenders, and swapping intuition-based policies for evidence-based practices (such as focusing treatment on changing characteristics that contribute to offending, like poor impulse control, and avoiding those that don’t.)  

Making supervision more reward-based holds great potential. A probation officer’s job has traditionally been defined as reactive: wait until something bad happens and then impose a sanction, often a return to prison. This not only costs state taxpayers an average of $30,000 per year for each inmate, it also ignores a good part of what we know works best when it comes to steering ex-offenders away from continued criminality.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states definitively that “rewarding positive behavior is more effective in producing long-term positive change than punishing negative behavior.” Recent evaluations of drug treatment courts found that participants who experienced more incentives than sanctions had a reduced likelihood of recidivism. Drug courts have helped pioneer reward-based practices by holding graduation ceremonies to commemorate program completion. Many graduates say it’s the first time in their lives that they’ve achieved something and been publicly acknowledged for it, and studies suggest that this type of recognition inspires them to persist in their sobriety.

Such ceremonies shouldn’t be limited to specialized courts or programs, which handle only a small fraction of the millions of people on community supervision. They should be expanded and accompanied by other rewards for progress along the way. Local communities and businesses can chip in with small gift cards and other tokens of recognition.

At least 15 states have passed laws that establish “earned compliance credits,” which typically permit offenders to earn a month off of their supervision terms for each month that they’re in compliance. This tactic could be expanded and used in new ways. For instance, for each month they obey the rules, parolees or probationers could have a reduction or elimination of the monthly fee (typically about $50) that they’re required to pay.

Another potentially promising method would capture the power of social media to push positive messages to probationers and parolees when they do well. Pass a drug test, complete a phase of treatment, or get a job—and you’d receive a batch of digital pats on the back from your treatment team and circle of family and friends.

It’s human instinct to punish wrongdoing, and accountability won’t—and shouldn’t—vanish from the criminal justice system. We can’t just reward people when they do right but fail to respond when they do wrong.

But by shifting the emphasis from retribution to rewards, we can make a greater impact on behavior. We’ll not only help adults in the criminal justice system minimize their offending; we’ll strengthen their resolve to successfully reintegrate into their families, work, and communities. The payoff: less crime, fewer victims, and lower rates of incarceration.

Adam Gelb directs the public safety performance project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Barbara Broderick is chief probation officer for Maricopa County, Arizona.

This piece was previously published in The Hill.

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