August 8, 2009
Psychologists Offer Ways to Improve Prison Environment, Reduce Violent Crime
Harsh punishment backfires
TORONTO—U.S. prisons are too punitive and often fail to rehabilitate, but targeting prisoners’ behavior, reducing prison populations and offering job skills could reduce prisoner aggression and prevent recidivism, a researcher told the American Psychological Association on Saturday.
“The current design of prison systems don’t work,” said criminal justice expert Joel Dvoskin, PhD, of the University of Arizona. “Overly punitive approaches used on violent, angry criminals only provide a breeding ground for more anger and more violence.”
Presenting at the American Psychological Association’s 117th Annual Convention, Dvoskin discussed his upcoming book, “Applying Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending,” which examines why prisons are failing and what needs to change.
“Prison environments are replete with aggressive behaviors, and people learn from watching others acting aggressively to get what they want,” Dvoskin said in an interview.
Applying behavior modification and social learning principles can work in corrections, he said. “For example, systematic reinforcement of pro-social behaviors is a powerful and effective way to change behavior, but it has never been used as a cornerstone of corrections,” he said.
Also, punishment can be effective in changing behavior, but it only works in the short term and immediately after the unwanted behavior happens, he said. While there is a place for punishment, it should be used in psychologically informed and effective ways. However, punishment should not be one-size-fits-all, Dvoskin said.
“We need to know what may be behind the criminal behavior to know what the best treatment is,” he said. “A person who commits crimes when drunk but not when sober is likely suffering from an alcohol problem. Treating the alcohol problem may diminish the criminal behavior.”
Decreasing prison populations needs to be more of a priority, Dvoskin said. “This can be done by paying more attention to those with the highest risk of violent behavior rather than focusing on lesser crimes, such as minor drug offenses.”
Finally, bringing work back into prisons can benefit prisoners by teaching them job skills and filling unmet job needs. With the increase in the criminal population and lack of increase in prison staff, “there is not enough supervision to allow prisoners to work and build skills,” Dvoskin said. “This makes it very hard to re-enter into the civilian world and increases the likelihood of going back to prison.”
With 7 million American adults in prison and almost 50 percent of them African-American males, many children are growing up without fathers and are at risk for continuing the vicious cycle of criminal behavior, Dvoskin said. “If we don’t make the changes now, we will see these numbers go up.”
Dvoskin, along with co-editors Jennifer Skeem, Ray Novaco and Kevin Douglas, wanted to find out what social science reveals about preventing and reducing violent crime. “Our intention,” said Dvoskin, “is to avoid the extreme partisan bickering about whether to be ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ on crime, but to combine social science and common sense so that our correctional systems can more effectively change behavior. After all, isn’t that their job?”
Workshop: “Using Social Science to Prevent Violent Crime,” Joel A. Dvoskin, PhD, University of Arizona College of Medicine Session: 3256, 1:00 – 2:50 PM, Saturday, Aug. 8, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, South Building – Level 700, Meeting Room 715B
For more information or an interview, contact Joel Dvoskin at 520-577-3051 or cell 520-906-0366 or by e-mail.
The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.