Massachusetts Probation Service Offers Innovative Alternatives to Incarceration

Guided by research, community corrections centers strengthen treatment program contracts

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Massachusetts Probation Service Offers Innovative Alternatives to Incarceration
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Rigorous evidence-based research demonstrates that most of the behavioral health and employment interventions provided primarily to defendants on probation by social workers, counselors, and probation officers at the community corrections center in Brockton, Massachusetts, are effective. For example, a recent study suggests that people who are sentenced and assessed to have a moderate to very high risk of committing another offense but participate in a program that avoids incarceration have a good chance of avoiding repeat involvement in the criminal justice system.

As such, alternatives to incarceration have the potential to promote both cost savings and equity. The Massachusetts Executive Office of the Trial Court recognizes the lifelong consequences of confinement in jail and prison—and that the negative impacts of incarceration affect a higher proportion of African American, Latino, and Native American persons than White defendants, reflecting the deeply ingrained history of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

The Brockton center is one of 18 community corrections centers in Massachusetts to offer evidence-based alternatives to prison and jail. Each is part of the Massachusetts Probation Service. The centers’ programs include cognitive behavioral treatment to address criminal behavior and substance use disorder, adult basic and secondary education with learning support, career development, life-skills training, communicable disease education and counseling, and comprehensive case management of health and human service needs.

In June 2018, the Massachusetts Executive Office of the Trial Court partnered with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Results First initiative to review research of the probation service programs operated at community corrections centers across the state, including the center in Brockton. The goal was to determine whether there is data-driven evidence that these programs improve client outcomes and ensure that public funds are being used effectively.  

To assess the evidence for each program, the staff in the Office of Community Corrections (OCC) used a literature search and the Results First Clearinghouse Database, an online resource that brings together information on the effectiveness of social policy programs from nine national clearinghouses. The OCC matched its programs to those in the clearinghouse database and then adopted the same rating and color for its program that the clearinghouse database used. This allowed the OCC to measure the sufficiency of the program’s evidence and its effectiveness. In cases where a Massachusetts program matched more than one clearinghouse rating, OCC researchers reviewed the program details provided by the clearinghouse to determine the best match. If unable to determine the best match, the researchers reported both ratings for the program.

In January 2020, the OCC published the findings from its comprehensive review. The centers operated 87 programs in 2018, including clinical, educational, vocational, life skills, and other services. The review found that 17% of the programs received the highest rating (green), 29% the second highest (orange), and 18% were rated highest by at least one clearinghouse but second highest by another. (See Figure 1.)

Two programs stood out with the highest evidence rating: adult vocational training and Seeking Safety, a therapeutic program for women suffering from trauma, substance use disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, two cognitive behavioral therapy programs used in most centers had the second-highest evidence rating: Courage to Change Interactive Journaling System and Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT). These became the centers’ preferred programs.

The OCC used the findings to change its contracting for services, including issuing guidelines for current providers to give—when possible—priority to the highest and second-highest rated programs. Updated requests for proposals encourage prospective program providers to include MRT or other cognitive behavioral therapies with highly rated evidence-based curricula—and amended contracts now include stronger language requiring evidence-based programs. Other changes include training all OCC staff in MRT so that it’s available throughout the system, providing each center with an optimal mix of highly rated evidence-based programs, and ensuring that every client’s programmatic needs are met.

Two community corrections centers have successfully piloted the new contract specifications for preferred evidence-based programs, and the OCC intends to have these initiatives implemented at all centers through new and amended contracts by July. Office of Community Corrections Director Vincent Lorenti said, “With the support of Results First, we have been able to reorganize our contracting and performance measurements to promote the delivery of evidence-based therapies and practices that have been validated by rigorous research. These include using risk and need assessments to assign the right services and motivational interviewing in counseling.”

The OCC’s evidence-based approach builds on the Massachusetts Legislature’s 2012 investment in using data to improve public safety. The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, county sheriffs, and the Massachusetts Trial Court partnered with the Pew Results First initiative to use state-specific data to compare the costs and long-term benefits of using programs that have been shown in prior evaluations to reduce recidivism.

The probation service has applied the Results First work since 2012 to align programs with evidence-based knowledge. “The commonwealth has improved its criminal justice program decisions by implementing the Results First approach to using rigorous evidence in the policy process,” said Edward J. Dolan, commissioner of the Massachusetts Probation Service.

Sara Dube is a director and Steve Lize is an officer with the Results First initiative.