What the experts stay: LEO leads the way

Author: Blanca Garcia, LEO Research Associate

Young Man Smiling

With the launch of our research project, Step Up, LEO continues to push the frontiers of poverty research. A rigorous evaluation of a behavior therapy program for adults in a Lubbock, Texas detention center, “the study is the first of its kind being conducted by LEO, and possibly by anyone,” says Mary Kate Batistich, one of the researchers on the study. “This makes any evidence, or lack of evidence, we find especially informative.”

Step Up is in line with a wave of emerging research that supports the effectiveness of behavioral therapy programs in fostering substantive and long-lasting behavior change. Launched in 2016, the program brings this idea into the Lubbock detention center, creating a curriculum for inmates in an attempt to reduce violence and curb recidivism. As part of the program, participants live in a separate “pod” from the rest of the jail and attend 15 hours of programming a week, with the option to participate in individual therapy as well. Programming includes courses such as conflict resolution, anger management, and therapeutic writing. In an effort to target inmates with the highest tendencies towards violence, participants must hold medium or maximum-security classifications in order to be eligible. This eligibility requirement is a notable deviation from most programs which restrict participation to inmates with non-violent backgrounds. Instead, individuals with violent backgrounds are more likely to be subjected to more severe punishment such as solitary confinement.

Post doctoral fellow Tyler Giles, who works on the project, welcomes Step Up’s approach. Tyler's research mostly focuses on the effectiveness of criminal sentences. “A growing body of research suggests that more severe criminal punishments have the potential to increase the likelihood of re-offense for convicted offenders,” Tyler says, adding that he’s excited to study a rehabilitative program.

Tyler works with Mary Kate and the other LEO researcher on the project, LEO co-founder Bill Evans. The team is tasked with measuring the effectiveness of the program in reducing recidivism and violence for participants. LEO will gather data on both individuals who are released from jail and those who continue to serve time either at the jail or are transferred to a prison. For those who are released, recidivism rates will be recorded at the 1-year and 2-year marks, along with their workforce success. For inmates who remain in custody, LEO will track the number of disciplinary infractions as well as the severity of the incidents and whether or not they involved violence. Researchers will compare the findings between inmates who participate in Step Up and those who do not.

In addition to these metrics, LEO is partnering with Jens Ludwig, a leading researcher on the impacts of behavioral therapy in the criminal justice system, using Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools to gain distinct insight into the therapies being offered. Step Up will record program sessions to send to Ludwig’s lab at the University of Chicago where researchers with clinical psychology backgrounds will analyze the therapy methods being used. These recordings may shed light on participants' beliefs or perceptions that may be leading to violence. The program transcripts may also document the transformation in thought patterns of individuals over time. Further, “NLP tools will facilitate any replication attempts of this program in other districts by identifying the specific mechanisms that are working,” adds Emily Merola, LEO's research associate supporting the project. 

If Step Up is effective, it can have tremendous impacts on individuals’ lives and help ease the strain of poverty. "There is a huge overlap between incarceration, mental health, and poverty," says Mary Kate. Breaking the cycle of recidivism may help lift families out of poverty by adding an extra income to a household and eliminating costly criminal justice fees. Once released, Step Up’s behavioral regulation tools may help individuals better manage conflict which can result in a greater likelihood for participants to land and maintain a job and even be selected for promotions. Program participants may also be less likely to reoffend. The potential for the program appears boundless and researchers are eager to begin analyzing data. Now, “the biggest challenge [for LEO] is waiting for enrollment to end so we can start evaluating outcomes,” says Bill.