Home Forums EBP & Related Research Findings Graduated Sanctions

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    Do “Graduated Sanctions” Work?

     

    The use of “graduated sanctions” is widely accepted as sound practice, but what does the research actually say about the effectiveness of this approach in reducing violation behavior and overall recidivism? As it turns out, not a whole lot. In fact, several studies point to the fact that graduated sanctions—on their own—do not change behaviors from undesirable to desirable and may even have negative effects. Offenders may become accustomed to being sanctioned, making it more difficult to change their behavior, and, in certain circumstances, graduating sanctions may increase the chances of noncompliance.

     

    The whole notion of sanctions, a term used interchangeably with “punishment,” may be in need of an update. Instead, new language—“responses to noncompliance”—that reflects a new approach may be in order. Systemwide, we have been refining our goals from pure compliance-based supervision to a balance between accountability and behavior change supervision. If we are concerned with risk reduction and long-term change, we must not only hold offenders accountable but also interact with them in different ways and offer them opportunities to learn and practice alternative thinking, skills, and behaviors.

     

    As parents can attest, behavior change strategies are continuously under construction, and reconstruction, as children learn acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. I am the parent of two very different children. My oldest daughter had exactly ONE classic temper tantrum as a child—full out, on the floor of a grocery store, kicking and screaming. My youngest daughter, on the other hand, rarely missed an opportunity to have a temper tantrum wherever we went. Her tantrums became an almost “expected” part of any trip until I began to realize that I was actually reinforcing them by responding to them and providing her with attention. So, I changed my approach. I stopped waiting for my daughter’s tantrums to start and then scolding, punishing, or threatening her. Clearly, those responses were not extinguishing her behavior. Instead, I set the scene for her to engage in positive behaviors. I gave her a “job” when we went to the store. She was in charge of “the list” (most often it was an old receipt or a scrap of paper that had nothing on it), or she was in charge of keeping an eye out for certain things—apples, cheese, or Goldfish crackers—or she was in charge of singing a song while we shopped. My new approach changed our dynamic considerably.

     

    The same principles apply when changing any behavior. Consider our offenders’ noncompliant behaviors. If our justice system goals include reducing risk and changing behaviors rather than just punishing misdeeds, our approach might benefit from setting the scene for offenders’ success. There is a common misperception that if, for instance, one sanction/punishment/day in jail does not do the trick, two or five or thirty of the same will somehow get the message across. No research has demonstrated that merely ratcheting up sanctions is an effective long-term behavior change strategy. However, much research exists that providing ways for offenders to actively change their behavior and treating them with respect, empowering them, encouraging their strengths, and reinforcing their efforts—while also holding them accountable—are effective long-term behavior change strategies.

     

    Madeline M. Carter, Principal, The Center for Effective Public Policy, wrote a compelling policy paper that explores the topic of responding to violations in more depth. Read more here: https://s3.amazonaws.com/static.nicic.gov/Library/029553.pdf.

    Here’s a question that comes up with some regularity:  What does the research tell us about ‘graduating’ sanctions?

    There is a pervasive notion in the field today that if a small dose of a sanction did not net the desired results (desistance of the problem behavior), a larger dose will do the trick. With the exception of a small number of single-site studies, to date, graduated sanctions—in and of themselves—have not been empirically demonstrated to reduce future violations and recidivism.

    There’s more to say on this topic, to be sure.  NIC will soon be releasing a monograph on this and other topics related to responding to noncompliant and prosocial behavior.  The monograph continues this discussion by summarizing some of the key research findings related to graduating sanctions.  Scheduled for release in early January, Behavior Management of Justice-Involved Individuals: Contemporary Research and State-of-the-Art Policy and Practice (Carter, 2015) will be announced through the National Institute of Corrections’ Information Center via the web.

    While admittedly an area in need of further exploration, some important conclusions from previous studies are noteworthy. For instance, Marlowe, DeMatteo, & Festinger (2003, p. 4) notes: “Behavioral research suggests, however, that ratcheting sanctions up slowly could lead some clients to become ‘habituated’ (accustomed) to being sanctioned, thus making it more difficult to suppress their negative behavior in the future.” Further, Wodahl (2007, p. 214) notes: “Little evidence was gleaned from this research to support the notion that graduated sanctions increase offender compliance with release conditions. In fact, findings suggest that the application of graduated sanctions can, in certain circumstances, increase the likelihood of noncompliance.” In fact, a subsequent study by Wodahl, Ogle, Kadleck, and Gerow (2009) raises important questions about our notions of “sanctions” generally. To most justice-system professionals, the term “sanction” is synonymous with “punishment,” and punishment consists of a relatively limited band of behavioral responses, such as house arrest and confinement. Yet Wodahl’s survey of probationers and parolees revealed that offenders view nonincarcerative, treatment-oriented responses—such as completing writing assignments, participating in treatment, or providing community service—as more punitive and onerous than jail.

     

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