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The Issues: Why Corrections Reform Matters to You

Criminal justice professor Emily J. Salisbury studies how the treatment of inmates affects all of us.

Business and Community  |  Aug 30, 2016  |  By Greg Lacour
Hands rest hanging ourside of jail bars

This year, Gov. Brian Sandoval replaced the embattled chief of the Nevada Department of Corrections with an East Coast law enforcement veteran. The new chief, James Dzurenda, quickly announced a change in focus for the department: The department, he said, would concentrate on rehabilitating inmates rather than warehousing and punishing them. And not just for their sake, but citizens’ as well. Rehabilitated inmates, he said, are less likely to commit crimes and threaten people.

That was welcome news to UNLV criminal justice professor Emily J. Salisbury, who began teaching at UNLV in 2014 in part because Nevada is “ground zero” for researchers and reformers, she said. “We’re about 40 to 50 years behind when it comes to public policy in corrections.” Nevada correctional agencies desperately need to pursue evidence-based approaches. Ultimately, she said, failure to even try to rehabilitate criminals leads to more crimes.

Our expert

Emily J. Salisbury is an associate professor of criminal justice.Emily Salisbury She also serves as editor-in-chief of Criminal Justice and Behavior, the official academic research journal of the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology. Salisbury’s research addresses correctional assessment and treatment intervention strategies, with a particular focus on female offenders and gender-responsive policy. She was the project director of two research sites that developed and validated the Women’s Risk/Needs Assessment instruments, a series of correctional assessments specifically designed to treat the needs of women.

A few facts

  • Salisbury, along with criminology professors Jody Sundt of Indiana University-Purdue University and Mark G. Harmon of Portland State University demonstrated that a controversial California decision five years ago — to reduce the prison population by 27,500 inmates to relieve prison overcrowding — did not lead to an increase in crime.
  • The American criminal justice system has, by far, the world’s highest incarceration rate. It holds more than 2.3 million people in state and federal prisons, juvenile facilities, county jails and other detention centers.
  • Nevada ranks 15th among states for incarceration rate: 463 per 100,000 residents, according to legislative researchers. The national average is 430 per 100,000.

What’s the most common misconception about prisoners?

“Many people don’t realize that, with a few bad decisions or few different cards in life, they could be in the same situation,” Salisbury said. “People assume that, ‘Once an offender, always an offender.’ But there is a science behind how we do corrections. There’s this perception that adult offenders can’t change, and they can.”

Isn’t it just better to lock people up and throw away the key?

“If warehousing people was effective, that’s what I would be teaching,” she said, noting that 95 percent of offenders are going to be released eventually. “We cannot go around anymore having a conversation about public safety without talking about rehabilitation.

People can change under the right conditions, she said. “People forget that there is a science, and there are best practices, behind criminal justice. When it’s done correctly, it’s more effective in reducing recidivism. Most national public opinion polls on corrections show that most people endorse rehabilitation practices. It’s not as hard a sell as people think it is.”

What practices have been most effective in reducing recidivism?

The best practices center on changing the assumptions and attitudes that drive individuals’ negative behavior. “You can’t just light candles, sit in a circle and call it a rehabilitation program. We need to be teaching offenders skills, even basic social skills that a lot of us take for granted. Like: How do you walk away from a situation where you were disrespected when all ‘your boys’ are there? And effective programs look very different with women because women are, statistically, not nearly as dangerous ... Treatment for women needs to be more relationship-based.”