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Criminal Justice Goes International

Byrne Shares Expertise, Also Learns

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A wall divides the Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast.

By Sandra Seitz

It might be surprising to know that James Byrne, professor of criminal justice and criminology, serves on a panel of experts for the Ministry of Justice in the United Kingdom. 

What can an expert from the United States, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, offer to corrections officials in other countries?

A lot, as it turns out.

Byrne is a leading proponent of evidence-based practice in corrections – that is, using strategies that have been proved effective by experimental research.

“The ‘gold standard’ would be two well-designed studies, with participants randomly assigned to the experimental and control groups, to show that a certain strategy works,” says Byrne. “We’ve tried to apply that standard in criminal justice and have to conclude that, in most cases, we simply don’t have the evidence.” In consequence, the standard has been lowered, so that one well-designed study is considered sufficient and most advocacy groups use what Byrne calls “the nonsense approach” – simply highlighting whatever supports their positions.

The British Ministry of Justice requires that corrections programs, both current and proposed, be reviewed by its panel of experts, on which Byrne is one of two Americans. He serves on two committees: on desistance (or prevention of recidivism) and on effective corrections. Also, he will present a white paper this fall on what is known about changing criminal lifestyles to a British national conference of senior corrections officials. 

When evaluating a program, Byrne poses several questions – Will this reduce violence in the community? Will it have an impact on performance? Are there unintended consequences?

For example, a large American city is purchasing “shot spotter” technology, a system that locates where gunshots have occurred. Byrne says, “Although police chiefs love the idea of being able to collect information, is this the best use of $2.5 million? It responds to violence, but there’s no evidence it will prevent violence. At the very least, the shot spotter should link to medical response units.”

Learning Across National Borders

Byrne finds that many corrections issues are similar across countries.

“Other countries, despite lower rates of incarceration, have similar problems – that many of those in prison have mental health issues and that minorities are disproportionately represented in prison populations,” he says. “Comparing information – about treatment-oriented prisons, facility types based on risk assessment and strategies for community re-integration, for example – helps everyone.”

Byrne thinks there are also lessons to be learned.

“American exceptionalism [the idea that America is unique in every way] is a problem,” he says. “We have things to teach, things to learn.”

“In the U.K., people are more open to the notion that offenders can change,” says Byrne. “In the U.S., people are more likely to doubt the possibility of change and think the only societal control is over the length of incarceration.”

Different attitudes lead to different practices and cultural expectations. Probation officers here have criminal justice degrees. In the U.K., 70 percent have degrees in social work or psychology and probation officers are trained in techniques of relationship building.

“You see these very different orientations in the treatment of sex offenders,” says Byrne. “We know that the majority of abusers are adolescents from within the family, not older, lifetime predators. Yet the tendency in the U.S. is to extend the law, to put even juvenile offenders on the [sex offender] registry, when the two groups with the lowest re-offense rate are sex offenders and murderers.

“That’s not probability,” Byrne concludes. “It’s reality.”

Growing Partnerships

During the past semester, Byrne has given a keynote address on his work in Romania, made presentations at two “Desistance” workshops (Belfast and Glasgow) and been interviewed  by NPR in Seattle about technology use in policing. Also, he has held discussions with faculty at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, about cross-national issues in corrections.

Byrne will bring an international perspective to the UMass Lowell campus with a conference on desistance, scheduled for Nov. 12. Visiting expert Fergus McNeill, professor of criminology and social work from the University of Glasgow, will present a film he led to development.

“It's called ‘The Road from Crime’ and is intended to stimulate debate about how we can reform criminal justice to better support desistance,” says Byrne. “We hope it might be used in staff training, to educate the wider public and, perhaps, as a tool in direct practice.” The film can be viewed online.