The growing needs of Idaho’s criminal justice system have concerned policymakers and legislators in recent years. But criminal justice is about more than just bed space. Lauren Bailey and Mackenzie Moss, analysists with the Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, join Logan Finney to discuss the process of returning to the community when one exits the state’s criminal justice system.
Read: Exiting Idaho’s Criminal Justice System
Logan Finney, Idaho Reports:
Lauren, Mackenzie, thanks for joining us.
Lauren Bailey, OPE:
Thanks for having us.
Mackenzie Moss, OPE:
So, lawmakers charged the Office of Performance Evaluation with studying the end-to-end effectiveness of Idaho’s criminal justice system. This report that you guys authored focuses on reentry. Could you give me some of the high level takeaways here?
Sure. In March of 2021, we were directed by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee to evaluate our criminal justice efforts in Idaho. It was kind of a broad request. And we met with stakeholders, including the original study requesters, and decided to approach this in two phases.
The first phase was focused on reentry, which is when individuals who are incarcerated within Idaho’s prison facilities reenter the community. But it’s also a process that’s not just that one event.
So this first phase focused on reentry, and then the second phase will focus on prevention. What are ways that the state can help keep people from interacting with the criminal justice system, or alternatives to incarceration? Are there things we could be doing that were not to keep people out of prison once they have interacted with the system?
I would say that the high level takeaways from this first phase are that we are doing things as a state to help prepare residents of prison facilities to reenter. But we don’t have a clear picture of if our efforts are actually successful or not. And part of that is because we need some expanded metrics to understand if our efforts are having an impact in different areas. And historically, recidivism has been the metric that the state uses, and other states and the federal government. And there’s some limitations to that that we can go into detail and discuss. But just using that metric alone – and recidivism is the return to incarceration after a previous incarceration – doesn’t
tell us if our programs are working and doesn’t tell us where we need to focus our attention. So we think that the department and the legislature have some opportunities for improvement and we make some recommendations in the report to address some of those gaps.
Also we acknowledge that the department, like every agency and organization, has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and as part of that, they’ve had a staffing crisis, particularly with correctional officers, and have had a really difficult time filling and keeping those positions. And that we heard and found that has a direct effect on the ability to not only administer reentry services, but also the ability for residents to get access to those services.
Absolutely. Those are great overviews. Mackenzie, did you have anything you wanted to add?
As far as kind of what our main takeaways from the report were, I think that really covers the insufficient metrics as well as the limited capacity. Lauren talked a bit about the correctional officer staffing shortage, which is a huge one. And then we also did receive some feedback kind of throughout the process that there’s other places within that reentry process that there might be limited capacity, whether it be working with case managers or having enough resources in the community. Definitely having the availability of resources, whether it be staff or those services, plays a large role in how successful someone’s reentry can be.
Sure. Those staffing issues and the shortage of correctional officers and parole officers is something we’ve covered here at Idaho Reports as well. I’m curious about the methods for this study. Your office did a bunch of interviews with residents of the system and parolees, and other stakeholders who are involved. Can you tell me about some of that?
Yes. We wanted to approach this evaluation with a recognition that this is a vast system with many stakeholders. And one of the first steps was that we reached out to stakeholders across the community, across the state, to kind of wrap our minds around what was happening, not just at the Department level, but in the communities. And we realized we wanted to do further interviews with individuals who had actually experienced incarceration and reentry.
So we requested a large dataset from the Department of Corrections and from that dataset we were able to look at everyone during a certain time period from, I believe, 2016 through 2021, who had exited the Department of Corrections custody to parole. We had kind of specifically narrowed down parole was our focus. And then we created a sample from that population of 500 individuals who we had the email contact information for, and we independently reached out to them and asked them they would participate in interviews from that sample. We interviewed 53 individuals who either were currently on parole or formerly paroled.
We definitely want to give a shout out to Saint Vincent de Paul Reentry Services, who we worked with during this evaluation as a stakeholder. But they offered their office space as a neutral location for us to meet with people on parole, in a comfortable environment that wasn’t a state building. So we really appreciate their assistance. And the interviews took over a month, we spread them out.
I would say it was one of the most incredible experiences that I’ve ever had – as as a human being, but also particularly as an evaluator. We had created a specific guide of questions that we asked
every individual, and the interviews lasted about an hour and people were extremely willing to share with us. And we heard a lot of really heartbreaking stories, but we also heard a lot of really wonderful, positive things that came out of those interviews.
That’s very cool. As a journalist, I’m jealous that you guys were able to spend that much time and talk to that many people to get such a comprehensive look at this.
So let’s talk about some of the findings from this study. We’ve kind of touched on there’s what the report characterized as insufficient metrics. The big one we talk about is recidivism, which is when people get out of the system, how often they end up back in the system. The report characterizes that as an insufficient metric, that it’s not enough to get a full picture. But can you tell me about specifically Idaho’s recidivism rate and what we are able to learn from it?
Sure. Yeah, that’s a great question. Just to clarify on recidivism, it is the return to criminal behavior after incarceration, and it can be defined any number of ways. It could be re-arrest, it could be conviction, it could be incarceration at the state level. And for our purposes, the Department of Corrections, when they’re reporting to the legislature, defined that as incarceration. And part of that is just our ability to access data at different levels of government. The rate when we talk about recidivism rate, it’s the rate that not an individual but a group of people return to incarceration.
The way that we assess that in Idaho, where the department has determined that, is a cohort method. So they look at everyone that leaves an IDOC facility in one year, the year they leave, and then they measure it out at one year intervals and three years. So at three years, what is the rate of that population? How many have returned to prison?
What we know is that we’ve had pretty high recidivism rates in Idaho, depending on if you’re looking at subgroups or that, anywhere from 30% to over 40% recidivism rate. We were looking in this study specifically at individuals who exit and they’ve had term sentences. So they are on probation. They weren’t part of what’s called the rider program, or retained jurisdiction. And we found that the rate has increased. So we looked at cohort starting with 2016 as exit year, 2017 and 2018, and the rate increased over those three years. People who exited prison in 2018, 37% of that population for both men and women ended up back in prison within three years. What we don’t know is why, and that is the kind of the failure of recidivism as a metric. That it doesn’t explain to us what happened, why they got in trouble again with the law, or were convicted and ended up back in prison. It doesn’t help the state understand where resources need to be focused.
Yeah, tell me about that. If recidivism isn’t giving us the whole picture – you know, that rate of 30% to 40% means one in three people is ending up with something else after they’re ostensibly done
with their sentence. What could we be measuring that could help us better figure out why that recidivism rate is so high and where the system isn’t working?
Yeah. So in our research, a study we came across that actually came out just this last November was a report done by the National Academy of Sciences called The Limits of Recidivism: Measuring Success After Prison. They had conducted a large consensus study with experts across many fields to try to understand if recidivism isn’t the metric that helps us, what do we need to be looking at?
They came away with some recommendations that we incorporated into our report to look at what they called the key domains of successful reintegration. Those look at overall wellbeing, overall health and mental health of individuals, substance use, the individuals’ engagement in health
care, housing and homelessness, employment and job retention, educational attainment,
social relationships, civic engagement and what is referred to as criminal desistance which is stopping criminal behavior. And then as part of that recommendation of these key domains, they offer a lot of examples of different measurement tools, some validated, some not quite validated yet, that could be incorporated to try and get a better understanding of where we’re seeing issues.
So is it because of lack of access to health care? Are individuals ending up back in the system because they’re not reintegrating with their family and their community, in both social ways and in family connection ways? So the goal will be to look at all those domains and over time, collect data on them and try to understand where we’re experiencing gaps as the state.
So in terms of all of these compounding factors that affect whether a person re-offend or falls into that recidivism rate, the state does have some programs in place to help with this reentry process. Mackenzie, can you tell me about some of the programs that the state is doing and whether we know they’re having an effect?
Yes. Good question that I’ll kind of answer in two ways. So you asked what programs the state currently offers to folks that are in prison getting ready to reenter. The word “programs” is one
we thought a lot about as we put together this evaluation, and the way that we use the word programs in our report actually refers to evidence-based programs or potentially evidence-based programs that the department uses, and then the parole commission then uses, to determine
if someone should be released to parole. So they’re required programs, one could say, in order for someone to be released onto parole. Then there are other types of resources or services that someone might have access to in prison that you could use the word program to describe
but are not those evidence-based, required programs. So maybe I’ll talk about those first,
and then we can transition into the evidence-based programs, which was a big focus of our evaluation.
Beyond those evidence-based programs, there’s some other resources that folks might have access to. They might have access to education programs. That might be something like a GED or even more remedial education before that, or more advanced education like a higher education course. We found that those were available depending on the resources at each facility. So, how many staff there were and if the connections were there to provide those services. And nationally, it has shown that as folks participate in education courses, that does reduce the likelihood that someone would recidivate. The department also offers what’s called a prerelease course, which is a type of education where folks might learn life skills and a range of other things that would prepare them to reenter.
We did a little bit of digging into the department’s prerelease course, and we made some recommendations in our report about how there might be some better measurement to determine if that course is effective. Right now, we’re not sure if that prerelease class is effective with those life skills.
The other opportunity that someone might have access to could be a work opportunity. That could be within a facility, ranging all the way up to being able to leave the facility to work in the community. And we talk about that in our evaluation, we did look at how much money someone might make in each of those different ranges and do some analysis on how much folks had saved when they reentered based on those different opportunities. Because we heard a lot about how having money in the bank can be a little bit of grounding as you get out, might be useful in being able to secure housing, to pay off debts that you might owe, to pay off things like restitution. That is another kind of program, a work program that someone might have access to.
So those are the types of things that are resources offered to people who are getting out of the system. Lauren, can you tell me about the required programs and whether we know if those are working or not?
Yeah, so we don’t know. The department offers some core behavioral intervention programs and they are rooted in what we call evidence-based practices, but they’re not necessarily proven to be effective or rated by the National Institute of Justice as effective programs. As we were interviewing program facilitators at the department, we also conducted a survey of department
staff. Then we spoke with former participants in these behavioral intervention programs. We heard a lot of mixed feedback.
In some cases, we heard positive things, that this is better than what the department was doing prior to 2016, and that this is a more formalized program. It’s consistent across facilities. They’re able to offer these classes to more individuals, and kind of get people through the classes faster than they may have in the past. But then on the other side of that, we heard that the classes tend to be very repetitive. Especially individuals who have gone in and out of the system, and are now taking the classes multiple times over different stages, find them very repetitive and rudimentary. We heard from the facilitators of the programs that they are not necessarily as enjoyable to teach, it’s not as enjoyable for them to teach these programs that were implemented starting in 2016 because they’re more formal. There’s less opportunity to engage with personal stories, and they’re supposed to follow a more structured curriculum. But there’s a reason for that, and that is because the structure is important for program fidelity and for understanding if the programs are working.
The department has issued a program effectiveness report every two years since 2016, and they’re inconclusive. When we were digging into this even more, recidivism has kind of been that metric of whether it’s successful or not. And the numbers have gone in the wrong direction. They’ve increased. But we don’t really understand if that’s because the program itself is not effective, or if it’s not being implemented with fidelity. And so one of our recommendations to the department was that we want them to prioritize pre and post program testing to try and get a better understanding if individual participants are receiving a benefit from these behavioral intervention programs.
Okay. One other detail I wanted to ask about that I found interesting was a section that had to do with person-centered language, with being intentional about not referring to people as “criminals” or as “inmates” but referring to them as people and referring to residents and clients. Can you tell me the actual, or at least anecdotal effect that seems to have on people and how how impactful these programs are for them?
That shift in language is something that the department might be able to speak better to. It was a certainly a decision they made starting to be more intentional with language. You’ll see across their website and they’re updating their documents to reflect those changes. So, we don’t say inmate anymore or criminal, we say resident if they’re a resident of the facility. We don’t say parolee, we say client. They’re a client of the parole office.
We heard from staff with the Department of Correction that they appreciate this change, that it’s improved their connection and relationships with their clients and with residents. We heard from individuals that we interviewed with lived experience that they did feel like it treated them like a human being, that the recognition that their crime is not who they are, and that the labeling didn’t necessarily help in their progress towards becoming a better person, and releasing from prison. We heard some some really wonderful comments from men and women who appreciate this change and recognize that the department is making this change. One quote in particular I’ll read from the report was from an interview with a resident, a former resident who said that “when you feel like a human being, you act like one,” and they really appreciated the efforts the department was making.
Yeah, I just wanted to jump in and second all of that, and add that another word that we heard a lot that was being moved away from was “offender.” I can remember quite a few interviews where folks talked about that language not sitting right with them, or not not being helpful to their process or their experience, and we heard that across a lot of different people. So it was really interesting to kind of hear that the language that was being used really did have an effect on how they saw themselves and kind of how they saw their experience within the criminal justice system moving towards reentering the community. And we heard a lot of positive things about those shifts.
Yeah, that’s very interesting to hear. I think it’s a feature of you guys being able to do these one-on-one interviews and hear people’s actual lived experience with the system.
Some of the past attempts that the state has made, like the Justice Reinvestment efforts, only showed temporary success. Of course, lawmakers are concerned about the growth of both corrections services and the correction budget. What are some options or some recommendations that policymakers could look at to ease the need for these services and better support long-term success in improving the criminal justice system?
In this evaluation, it wasn’t necessarily those findings and we weren’t necessarily looking at costs, or cost containment. We weren’t able to assess what it even costs to administer these programs, because they don’t measure it on a per participant level. The interesting part about the correctional officer staffing shortage is that the department is working very hard to fix this problem. It’s been going on for the last couple of years, and they have increased starting pay – but so has everyone else. They’re in a difficult competition there to attract and retain staff. I don’t think it’s our office’s role in this evaluation to say this is how much more money you might need, or how many positions
the department is the best suited to, to assess that. But we certainly wanted legislators to be aware that there are real implications of this staffing crisis, and the way that it affects reentry.
Another main finding of our evaluation had to do with those metrics of success, and talked a lot about what we do and don’t know about what is effective in terms of reentry. As Lauren mentioned, we weren’t able to discover, really the information is not available, to know how much those programs cost on a per participant or per program basis. So that would be useful information to know. But also, dialing in what those metrics are that can help us determine what is and is not a successful intervention is all needed information in that discussion of cost effectiveness. I think that we kind of pointed to some places where our focus could be to give us better information to have those discussions. And by us, I mean the legislature and the department as they move forward. Really asking for the resources that are needed, or determining what resources are needed.
One of the report highlights that’s featured is that the Department of Corrections “plays a critical role in preparing people for reentry, supervising clients in the community, and connecting clients to resources. However, the department cannot be the sole reentry support for people returning to the community.” Tell me about that big picture finding. Tell me, who else needs to be involved in this process?
Bailey: You know, the criminal justice system, as I mentioned earlier, is this enormous entity with all of these different stakeholders. The department has a definite role in preparing people for reentry, in supporting that transition and in supervising them in the community, and as part of that role of supervision. Parole officers connect their clients to resources, may recommend specific treatment, but at the community level, if there are not enough resources – if they’re not enough inpatient beds for substance use treatment or mental health holds, if there’s not enough community providers to assist with housing, or jobs, or clothing – if there aren’t enough of those services at the community level, then anything that the department does, it’s difficult to judge them by that when there’s this other part of the system. I think that the state and the legislature has an interesting role in in this arena, and that there are some things that they can certainly help with, but there are other things that really are more at a local level. It’s important in the big picture of reentry to recognize that there are other stakeholders besides the Department of Correction.
Well, I’ve got one more question for the two of you before I let you go. This phase of the study
focused on reentry, which is the coming out of the criminal justice system. Part two of the study
is going to be focusing on the the entry part of that equation, or possibly diversions or other things than incarceration. Can you give me a preview of where you’re at in that process, and when you expect that study to come out?
Yeah, the second phase is currently on pause, but I can kind of give you a preview of where we see it going. That’s to look specifically at those alternatives to incarceration that either the state is currently implementing, or other states might have some ideas that could work in Idaho. One of the things that Idaho does is treatment courts to help keep people from incarceration when they have either a substance use or a mental health issue that could be treated through an intensive treatment court. We’ll certainly be looking at what we’ve been doing and if there are opportunities to try some different things.
Looking at prevention is a broad area that could be anything from primary prevention which starts when people are young, to juvenile justice and prevention that happens in that age group, to things that can happen for adults that help prevent them from interacting with law enforcement. So, we’re looking forward to phase two, but it’s currently on pause.
Lauren Bailey and Mackenzie Moss with the Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, thanks so much for spending your time with us today.
Thank you, Logan. It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you for having us.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.