Four Tips from Idaho for Overhauling Correctional Programming

May 11, 2017

[UPDATED: June 4, 2018]

For years, Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) leaders believed they were running a top-notch corrections program. But an evaluation of their programming upended that notion and compelled then Director Kevin Kempf to make some tough choices to bring about change.

Conducting the Evaluation

In 2015, Director Kempf set out to examine the nearly $10 million the state spent annually on programming to see if changes could be made to lower recidivism, reduce the prison population, and lead to cost savings for Idaho. The timing was right since a year earlier, the Idaho legislature had voted unanimously to enact the Justice Reinvestment Act, which charged the state with reducing its recidivism rate by 15 percent and averting nearly $157 million in spending by 2019.

To start the process of evaluating Idaho’s programs, Director Kempf sought an independent assessment to determine whether the programs served the right people, whether they were backed by research, and how well they were being run. In response to this request, The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center used its justice program assessment (JPA) evaluation to assess the state’s programs and develop recommendations within six months. CSG Justice Center staff analyzed how the state was spending money on programming, conducted on-site observations of programming, and assessed IDOC’s capacity to ensure quality control.

Key Takeaways

The results of the JPA revealed some startling inefficiencies in Idaho’s programming. “We sat before [stakeholder] groups for years and told them that what we were doing was right on—that we were one of the best in the country. We were telling them that because we believed it,” said Director Kempf. “It was only when we brought in outside eyes and expertise to [do] a top-to-bottom review of what we were doing that we actually saw that we weren’t one of the best agencies in the country.”

Director Kempf summed up key takeaways from the JPA experience in Idaho that can serve as a guide for other states wishing to embark on a similar process.

1. Use data to gain buy-in.

The JPA’s deep dive into current practices found that IDOC’s programs were not backed by solid research and were likely not getting the recidivism-reduction results they thought. Undertaking sweeping changes became easier when Director Kempf used the results of the evaluation to cultivate buy-in from staff. “When [staff] were faced with the data, the research, the numbers that showed that what we were doing wasn’t great and that there’s another way we could do it better, it took them a little bit, but frankly they got on board,” Director Kempf said. “You have to have staff that are bought in, that see the vision, that understand where you’re going. Then good things are going to happen.”

2. Be transparent.

In Idaho, judges strongly supported a substance use treatment program that the JPA revealed was not working well. When Director Kempf decided to cut the program and replace it with one based on recidivism-reduction principles, he was transparent with judges about why and how the program was eliminated. At the time, it was risky to jettison a program that was previously touted in the state and replace it with a program that was unfamiliar to judges, but Director Kempf’s openness about his reasoning for the change built support for this bold move and the new programming.

3. Focus on cost-effective evidence-based programs.

Prior to the JPA, IDOC offered 12 different programs, but not all of them were focused on risk reduction, nor were they all available in every facility. People were frequently transferred between facilities so that they could access the specific programs they needed to become candidates for parole. The slow transfer process made it difficult for many people to complete all required programming by their parole eligibility date, leaving the state to pay for longer periods of incarceration for people who otherwise may have been released to the community. Further, IDOC was paying a significant amount of money for proprietary programs that the JPA found were no more effective at reducing recidivism than free, publicly available programs.

As a result of the JPA recommendations, IDOC streamlined its program offerings to five core risk-reduction programs, all of which adhere to principles that decrease a person’s likelihood of reoffending. By offering all five programs at all of its facilities, IDOC decreased the need for transfers and reduced the amount of time it takes for someone to become parole ready. The new or improved programs are now better aligned with core recidivism-reduction principles than the initial 12 programs, and replacing proprietary programs with free public domain programs has saved IDOC money.

4. Use “outside eyes.”

During the JPA process, CSG Justice Center staff supplemented its own expertise by consulting a wide range of nationally recognized corrections experts to give Idaho advice tailored to the state’s unique circumstances, staff resources, and sentencing options. The JPA allowed IDOC to obtain an objective assessment of its correctional programming in a way that the agency could not have done in-house. It challenged staff preconceptions about the effectiveness of IDOC’s programming and gave them new tools to create better outcomes in their facilities and reduce recidivism. The CSG Justice Center’s reputation also helped win support from stakeholders. “We utilized that reputation to educate and communicate to all of our stakeholders—the judiciary, the parole commission—about why we needed to change,” Director Kempf said.

Seeing Results

The JPA “provided a roadmap for [IDOC] to become one of the best [corrections agencies] in the country, so we wasted no time putting it into play,” said Director Kempf. The in-depth analysis and subsequent overhaul of corrections programs was an audacious step that has paid off for Idaho.

Prior to justice reinvestment and the JPA, IDOC was forced to use out-of-state jail beds to serve its overflowing population, but changes brought about by the JPA process have enabled IDOC to bring all the people it held in out-of-state facilities back in-state.

Since receiving the JPA results, IDOC has also administered 45 trainings to about 1,000 staff members on evidence-based programs. Additionally, some IDOC staff members will be trained as trainers, so that IDOC can sustain training efforts and program improvements over the long-term. As a result of all of these training efforts, IDOC now offers more than 200 classes of its five, core evidence-based programs in its facilities at any one time. The training and subsequent increase in available program slots means that more people are completing program requirements by the time of their parole hearing, which not only saves taxpayer money, but ensures that these people are better prepared for release to the community.

In 2017, IDOC audited eight facilities that offer self-contained programming, including programs for reentry and for people on probation who remain under the jurisdiction of the court but are housed within IDOC for further assessment. All of these programs were found to be effective or highly effective and received scores 23 to 27 percent higher the national average. IDOC also audited 32 groups (e.g., Thinking for a Change, Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention for Substance Abuse) and found that 78 percent had “very high” or “high” adherence to evidence-based practices, compared to 25 percent nationwide.

Four Tips from Idaho for Overhauling Correctional Programming
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