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September 9, 2011

Notable California report on (mis)use of prisoner rehabilitation assessment scores

This recent piece from California, headlined "State auditor calls for end to prisoner rehabilitation test," spotlights the persistent challenges of trying to make rehabilitation work within a prison system. Here are the details:

The state auditor is recommending that California’s corrections system shut down tests that determine what rehabilitation prisoners need, calling the tools unproven and little used.

Since 2006, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has developed and repeatedly revised the assessments, called Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS for short).  It is composed of two tests. The first is given to incoming inmates, gauging levels of criminal thinking, violence, substance abuse and educational needs.  The other assessment is for prisoners about to go on parole and is different from the first in that it measures housing and employment prospects on the outside.

In a report released yesterday, auditors found numerous shortcomings [PDF] in how prisons have used assessment scores. Rank-and-file officers within the corrections system show “a lack of buy-in on COMPAS” and doubt the tests are useful, the report states. The department often fails to use the scores when deciding where to place inmates, and few inmates even receive the exams

State prison officials acknowledge problems highlighted by the auditor, but strongly disagree with the overall conclusion. The department plans to continue, upgrade and expand the assessments. “We refuse to return to the method of simply placing an offender in the next slot available – regardless of their criminogenic needs,” Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan wrote in response to the audit.

The tests represent a major culture shift for California’s prison system, said Lee Seale, internal oversight and research director for the department. Such changes come hard. “Obviously, with over 60,000 staff, you’re going to find pockets of resistance here and there throughout the institutions and parole regions,” Seale said. “We’re not surprised by that.”

California is one of 19 states that assess inmates for both risk of criminal behavior and their criminogenic needs. Risk and need are two sides of the same coin. Prisons long have relied on risk assessments, based in large part on records like rap sheets, to decide where to house inmates. Needs assessments are a more progressive approach, relying on question-and- answer sessions with trained psychologists that are used to calculate how best to rehabilitate prisoners....

Contrary to the auditor’s argument that the state cannot afford the assessments, Seale contends California’s money woes make criminogenic needs assessments critical. “Now is the right time, more than ever, to make sure we’re prioritizing those resources correctly,” he said. 

September 9, 2011 at 07:26 AM | Permalink


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Having worked in the public school system, I have experience of how truly limited "testing" is, either as a measure of actual achievment or as a predictor of future success. Intelligent children and adults know how to give the "right" answers, and a majority don't really care about truth in results. Then the number crunchers take scores for "facts" and come up with what is, in fact, completely skewed information.

Posted by: London Counselling | Sep 9, 2011 1:03:03 PM

The subtext of this audit report is yet another accounting scandal perpetrated by California's venerable prison guards. The final sentences of the letter to legislators that precedes the full report are as follows:

"Finally, we found that Corrections lacks accounting records demonstrating how much it cost to fully deploy and implement COMPAS at its reception centers, prisons, and parole offices. The lack of such information prevents Corrections from demonstrating accountability for its spending on COMPAS."

Translation: COMPAS is being shut down because it is being used as an accounting sinkhole to hide additional waste, fraud and abuse by corrections officers.

Here's a separate report about the scandal before this one regarding about $27 million of "missing" money. The report points out various problems with the financial behavior of the prison guards, including: "Inadequate collection efforts resulted in delayed collection of millions of dollars in receivables from employee salary and travel advances" and, "The department has serious internal control deficiencies relate to ORF [office revolving fund] transactions that could lead to fraud, abuse, and misappropriation of funds."

Translation: the guards commonly charge false overtime, false travel advances, false salary advances, false expense reimbursements and it is common knowledge that the they don't really have to pay them back because no one will bother to police it.


Here's another fun article about California prison guards using overtime pay to boost their $90,000 base salaries to as high as $270,000:


Posted by: James | Sep 9, 2011 6:22:46 PM

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