The Case for Evidence-Based Programming
In 1989, Anne Seymour conducted the first national survey of victim impact programs in the United States. At that time, only 10 percent of states had victim impact classes in place. By 2004, when the National Institute of Corrections surveyed the 50 states, U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and the Correctional Service Canada, 73 percent of U.S. jurisdictions reported that they conducted these programs (Gaboury and Sedelmaier, 2007).
Clearly, the programs are expanding rapidly, but do they work? Although only a small number of studies have been conducted on the effects of victim impact classes, the results thus far have been promising. The Washington State Department of Corrections evaluated its victim impact classes in 1990. The study (Stutz, 1994) followed 75 offenders who completed the classes, along with a comparison group of 75 who did not. Assessment measures included pre- and post-education attitude questionnaires, re-offense rates, restitution payments, and community placement violations. The study found evidence of lower re-offense rates and higher restitution payment rates among those completing the classes.
In 2000, the University of New Haven’s Dr. Mario Gaboury directed a project that evaluated victim impact classes in the Connecticut Department of Correction. Gaboury published the results of the evaluation in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, believed to be the first peer-reviewed article on this subject (Monahan, Monahan, Gaboury, and Niesyn, 2004). Study results supported the hypothesis that participation in victim impact classes increased offenders’ understanding of victimization facts, knowledge of victims’ rights, and sensitivity to the plight of victims. When compared with a matched control group whose members did not attend victim impact classes, participants showed a significant improvement in these three measures. However, when victim blaming was assessed, no significant differences were found between the groups. Age was a significant covariate, with younger offenders initially conveying less knowledge about victims' rights or sensitivity to their suffering. Younger offenders also made greater positive changes in these attitudes posttreatment (Monahan, Monahan, Gaboury, and Niesyn, 2004).
Other research has also supported the efficacy of impact of crime classes. Schiebstad (2003) indicated similar gains in knowledge and attitudes among offenders who attended victim impact classes in Iowa. Putnins (1997) studied whether exposure to victim impact classes could positively affect “sociomoral reasoning maturity” in delinquent adolescents and found significant, positive differences in the group exposed to the classes compared with the control group. His results go beyond demonstrating tangible improvements in delinquents’ attitudes toward victims and indicate a positive change in prosocial behaviors among these adolescents.
In 2008, Gaboury and his colleagues followed up on their 2004 study, this time investigating disciplinary infractions that occurred while participants in the study were incarcerated to determine whether or not participation in the awareness program influenced subjects’ short-term behavior in the correctional setting.
An individual's record of disciplinary infractions is considered one of the best available measures of inmate behavior. For this study, each subject's disciplinary history was standardized by the number of months from program completion to either release or, for those subjects who were never released, the end of data collection. Initial analysis indicated that the treatment group committed significantly fewer infractions than did the comparison group. Additional separate analyses were performed by severity of infraction, race, time-to-release, and the combination of race and time-to-release.
While initial analyses seemed to indicate that there were group differences, further analysis revealed that these findings were limited to one group. In all cases except that one group—African-American adult males—there were no statistically significant differences in the mean number of disciplinary actions taken per month against the program participants versus the comparison group subjects.
Although limited to this one subgroup, the finding is significant and may prove useful given that African-American males are typically overrepresented in correctional populations and given the seriousness of the offenses involved. Reducing the frequency of serious infractions and, as a consequence, these additional victimizations, is critical to the safety of both inmates and correctional officers (Gaboury, Sedelmaier, Monahan, and Monahan, 2008). These findings are promising regarding the potential for behavioral changes attributed to victim impact programs, and further research is required in this area.
In October 2015, an evaluation study and report was commissioned by Kim Book, the founder and Executive Director of Victims' Voices Heard Inc., a nonprofit organization working with victims of crimes and perpetrators of crimes. The report, Victim Impact: Listen and Learn, An Evaluation of the Effects of the Victim Impact: Listen and Learn Program on Prisoner Recidivism and Prisoner Behavior, was prepared by Janette Baird, Senior Research Scientist, Injury Prevention Center, Rhode Island Hospital; and Associate Professor (Research), Department of Emergency Medicine, Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University. The report's evaluation data on recidivism was made available through the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System (DELJIS). The Delaware Department of Corrections provided the evaluation team with access to prison facilities and prisoner interviews.
The report contained two main findings:
- From the available data on 333 prisoners who had attended the Victim Impact: Listen and Learn program prior to their release back into the community, 118 (35 percent) re-offended and were recommitted back into prison within the state of Delaware within a 3-year period following release. Comparable data provided by a 2013 DELJIS report on prisoner recidivism reported that within 3 years of release, 67 percent of prisoners re-offended and were recommitted back into Delaware prisons.
- Prisoners who attended the program and remained in prisons after attending the program showed a reduction by one-third in the frequency of disciplinary charges for the period of imprisonment after attending the program.
The report did not contain all available recommitment data for the released prisoners; nor did it examine other factors such as prisoner attendance in other programs, drug and alcohol use by released prisoners, or the effects of family and community support.
However, compared to recidivism data provided by the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, a significantly lower percentage of prisoners who completed the Victim Impact: Listen and Learn program and were released will be recommitted to prison for a 3-year period following their release. Currently, the State of Delaware estimates it costs up to $35,000 annually to house an individual within a correctional institution. If attendance at the Victim Impact: Listen and Learn program reduces expected recidivism, there is an expected recidivism rate of up to 40 percent of prisoners who are released after completing the program, compared to the expected recidivism of 67 percent, as estimated by the DELJIS study. This has the potential to provide enormous savings to this and other states.
The data also indicated that even for prisoners who remained incarcerated after attending the program, there were benefits. Disciplinary charges over time decreased in the period before and after attending the program.
Ongoing need for evidence-based programming in corrections
The Victim Impact curriculum was evaluated by Mario Gaboury and Christopher Sedelmaier using much of the methodology developed for the Connecticut project (Monahan, Monahan, Gaboury, and Niesyn, 2004).
The study involved 10 participating correctional facilities in four states: California, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia. Participants in both the victim impact groups and comparison groups volunteered for the study. All participants were given a 50-item questionnaire (see Pre-/Post-Test (PDF, 106 KB)) before beginning the evaluation and at the end of the study. Of particular interest were the offender's—
- Knowledge of victim rights;
- Knowledge of the facts about criminal victimization;
- Sensitivity to the victim's plight;
- Victim blaming; and
- Willingness to assume personal accountability.
Victim impact class participants demonstrated statistically significant improvements in knowledge of victim rights and the facts about criminal victimization, whereas comparison group members showed no such improvement from the initial test. Class participants also showed marked improvement in their sensitivity to the victim's plight scores. As one of the program's objectives is to reinforce the message that being victimized is a traumatic experience, this seemed a clear indication that participants were getting the message.
The fourth measure, victim blaming, included only two questions and showed no statistically significant changes—positive or negative—in either group. Although a link was not established between increased knowledge about and sensitivity to victims, on the one hand, and victim blaming, on the other, if it turns out that the first three factors were sufficient to alter the behavior of offenders that may be justification enough for the program. In any case, additional research on this measure should be conducted in future studies.
Analysis of the fifth measure, self-accountability, revealed several surprises. Although the participant group showed no statistically significant change in score, the comparison group's scores were significantly lower upon retest. This issue needs further study, but it may be that the classes might have helped participants to at least maintain their current attitudes, whereas zero exposure to messages aimed at promoting self-accountability in the comparison group may have allowed them to further rationalize their own behavior. (See full evaluation report (PDF, 877 KB) and PowerPoint presentation (PDF, 227 KB) for details about the findings.)
Working with human subjects
Finally, those programs hoping to conduct their own evaluation of their victim impact classes must be aware of the need for an institutional review board (IRB) or ethics review whenever research involves human subjects. The purpose of an IRB review is to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to protect the rights and welfare of individuals participating as subjects in a research study, including research in the social sciences. If a program involves vulnerable populations, the IRB should have members who are familiar with these groups; in the case of offenders, for example, it is common for an IRB to include an offender advocate. Guidelines for research in the social sciences may be found on the Web site of the National Science Foundation at http://www.nsf.gov/bfa/dias/policy/hsfaqs.jsp.
IRBs review research protocols and related materials (e.g., informed consent documents) to ensure protection of the rights and welfare of human subjects of research. The IRB's objectives are to assess the ethics of the research and its methods, to promote fully informed and voluntary participation by subjects who are capable of making such choices (or, if that is not possible, informed permission given by a suitable proxy) and to maximize the safety of subjects once they are enrolled in the project.
Gaboury, M.T., Sedelmaier, C.M., Monahan, L.H., and Monahan, J.J. (2008). “A Preliminary Evaluation of Behavioral Outcomes in a Corrections-Based Victim Awareness Program for Offenders.” Victims & Offenders 3(2), 217-227.
Monahan, L.H., Monahan, J.J., Gaboury, M.T., and Niesyn, P.A. (2004). “Victims' Voices in the Correctional Setting: Cognitive Gains in an Offender Education Program.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 39(3), 21-33. For more information, see http://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/abstract.aspx?ID=208110.
National Science Foundation. Interpreting the Common Rule for the Protection of Human Subjects for Behavioral and Social Science Research, Retrieved August 12, 2009 from http://www.nsf.gov/bfa/dias/policy/hsfaqs.jsp.
Putnins, A.L. (1997). “Victim Awareness Programs for Delinquent Youths: Effects on Moral Reasoning Maturity.” Adolescence 32, 709-715.
Schiebstad, I. (2003) An Evaluation of Victim Impact Classes. Unpublished paper. Saint Ambrose University, Social Work Program, Davenport, IA.
Stutz, W.A. (1994). Victim Awareness Educational Program Evaluation. Unpublished paper. Washington State Department of Corrections, Victim Services Unit, Olympia, WA.