By Tara Jackson
A decision-making tool engineered at Carleton is influencing the way countries around the world determine eligibility for parole — and reinforcing Canada’s reputation for justice leadership at the same time.
Ralph Serin, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Criminal Justice Decision-Making Laboratory, has worked for almost a decade with the Parole Board of Canada to develop a framework that helps parole board members clarify and explain the rationale behind their decisions.
A former Corrections Service of Canada employee, Serin has long been interested in examining the recidivism rate among repeat offenders. A natural starting point for his research, says Serin, was to look at the way decisions to release offenders are made in the first place.
Inside the campus lab — the only one in North America specifically developed for criminal justice decision making — Serin worked closely with colleagues and several grad students, as well as with parole board staff, to customize the framework which focuses on various factors of risk assessment. The resulting outline includes a series of questions and rating scales that help parole board members analyze a parolee’s behaviour and attitude, while taking into account things like prior criminal history and rehabilitation.
“We essentially created a roadmap,” explains Serin. “We organized the relevant literature and existing guidelines into a reference of best practices to better define the process.”
Over 80 parole board members have received training on the framework since 2011.
Over 80 parole board members have received training on the framework since 2011. A further 1,400 parole officers have been trained on it, ensuring a continuity of language throughout the parole process.
“Working directly with people who are making a difference on how releases are enacted is something tangible and meaningful to me as a researcher,” says Renée Gobeil, a former graduate student who helped to design the training program for parole officers.
The framework’s future looks promising. Prior to its implementation, the system underwent rigorous testing using different scenarios involving hundreds of inmates. And the results were impressive. Tests comparing the former parole board guidelines with the new framework showed a 4–6 per cent increase in decision accuracy using the new method.
“A one per cent increase in accuracy would result in $2.47 million in savings, so the benefits of this system are significant,” says Serin.
A one per cent increase in accuracy would result in $2.47 million in savings
The transparent and accountable nature of the framework makes it appealing to bureaucrats outside Canada as well. Currently, Serin and his colleagues are in the middle of a project funded by the National Institute of Corrections involving three U.S. states interested in using the framework for their local needs. And New Zealand recently commissioned Serin’s team to examine if parole can enhance public safety and save public dollars when controlling for offender risk.
“The fact that the kind of theoretical work we do in our lab in Ottawa is being adapted by major bodies in the way they provide services is pretty neat,” concedes Serin.
And Gobeil, who is involved in evaluating how the framework is being used south of the border, agrees.
“The enthusiasm from other jurisdictions really illustrates how much of a stand-out Canada is in this area,” she says. “Hopefully the positive results we’ve already achieved will lead to more offenders going home to their families sooner, and money saved across the board.”
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