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Punishment and Encouragement – Strange but Effective Partners in Offender Behavior

In a recent blog published in The Hill by Adam Gelb, Pew’s director of Public Safety Performance Project, and Barbara Broderick, a chief probation and parole officer in Maricopa County, Arizona, the two criminology experts noted that rewards are far better “shapers of behavior than punishments”.   Having experienced this phenomenon in my work with both offenders and children who have grown up in less than nurturing environments, I can attest to this this conclusion that is now surfacing in the latest research in changing criminal behavior.

As Gelb and Broderick point out, it is essential to any human being’s make-up to be encouraged especially for individuals who have heard very few “atta boys” in their lives.  From my own experience, I can tell you it is amazing the transformation that can take place when someone is praised for their accomplishments.  The pioneers in reward-based practices have been the Drug Court System.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse says, “Rewarding positive behavior is more effective in producing long-term positive change than punishing negative behavior.” Evaluations of drug treatment courts consistently indicate that participants who receive incentives rather than sanctions are far more likely to be successful and not recidivate.

For those under community supervision, the culture of most probation and parole officers is still focused more on enforcing rules and locking those up who do not obey those rules.  In Louisiana, as a result of the history-making criminal justice reforms that became law August 1, the probation and parole officers are going to have to find a way to make the paradigm shift from punishment to encouragement as they interact with the offenders being released in the coming years.

The Justice Reinvestment process Louisiana has been centered on data-driven analysis and a commitment to use evidence-based procedures.   With research pointing to refocusing the punishment model and making the mission of supervision to encourage success and not just punish for failure, it would make sense for Louisiana’s probation and parole officers to be afforded the necessary resources and training to equip them to carry out the new strategies.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections must be diligent in addressing this issue and allocating the needed resources, and the Legislature should work in concert to find the best solutions for taxpayers and, ultimately, public safety.

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