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State auditor calls for end to prisoner rehabilitation test

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

The state auditor is recommending that California’s corrections system shut down tests that determine what rehabilitation prisoners need, calling the tools unproven and little used.

Since 2006, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has developed and repeatedly revised the assessments, called Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS for short). It is composed of two tests. The first is given to incoming inmates, gauging levels of criminal thinking, violence, substance abuse and educational needs. The other assessment is for prisoners about to go on parole and is different from the first in that it measures housing and employment prospects on the outside.

In a report released yesterday, auditors found numerous shortcomings [PDF] in how prisons have used assessment scores.

Rank-and-file officers within the corrections system show “a lack of buy-in on COMPAS” and doubt the tests are useful, the report states. The department often fails to use the scores when deciding where to place inmates, and few inmates even receive the exams (see chart).

State prison officials acknowledge problems highlighted by the auditor, but strongly disagree with the overall conclusion. The department plans to continue, upgrade and expand the assessments.

“We refuse to return to the method of simply placing an offender in the next slot available – regardless of their criminogenic needs,” Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan wrote in response to the audit.

The tests represent a major culture shift for California’s prison system, said Lee Seale, internal oversight and research director for the department. Such changes come hard.

“Obviously, with over 60,000 staff, you’re going to find pockets of resistance here and there throughout the institutions and parole regions,” Seale said. “We’re not surprised by that.”

California is one of 19 states that assess inmates for both risk of criminal behavior and their criminogenic needs.

Risk and need are two sides of the same coin.

Prisons long have relied on risk assessments, based in large part on records like rap sheets, to decide where to house inmates. Needs assessments are a more progressive approach, relying on question-and- answer sessions with trained psychologists that are used to calculate how best to rehabilitate prisoners.

If prisoners show a high risk to commit future offenses, then they likely have a significant need for rehabilitation in their criminal thinking. Rather than merely categorizing prisoners, as risk assessments do, needs testing aims to make convicts less dangerous and more productive.

However, achieving that goal requires rehabilitation programs for inmates after they’ve been assessed. Auditors found a shortage of such efforts.

To date, the state corrections department uses COMPAS to determine need only for substance abuse treatment, and not always reliably for that. The report details:

Our review found that Corrections’ 11 institutions with substance abuse programs treat only a limited number of inmates with moderate to high substance abuse treatment needs, as determined by COMPAS. In February 2011, the 11 institutions … housed nearly 2,600 inmates that had moderate to high substance abuse treatment needs as identified through a COMPAS core assessment and that were within four to 12 months of their earliest possible release date. However, according to Corrections, only about 800 inmates with moderate to high needs – as determined by COMPAS core assessments – were assigned to the substance abuse treatment program during that same month.

More than 300 prisoners with “low” substance abuse scores were in the treatment program, according to the auditor.

Rehabilitation programs took a $69 million budget cut in the last fiscal year, curbing the length and variety of treatments available in California prisons.

Contrary to the auditor’s argument that the state cannot afford the assessments, Seale contends California’s money woes make criminogenic needs assessments critical.

“Now is the right time, more than ever, to make sure we’re prioritizing those resources correctly,” he said.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report


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