Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Conference Community Sentencing

Conference community sentencing describes community directed processes implemented in conjunction with the criminal justice system to punish and rehabilitate convicted offenders. Sometimes called sentencing circles/peacemaking circles, conferencing is a kin to a traditional ritual circle in which the offender, offender supporters, victim, victim supports, representatives of the criminal justice system (defense counsel, prosecutor, judge), together with the whole community understands the offense, identifies the best strategies for punishment and rehabilitation, and reaches a consensus to prevent reoffending (http://www. courtinfo. ca.

gov). Conference community sentencing can only meet the demands of restorative justice when; wrongs are acknowledged, the offender and victim share and understand the harmful effects of the criminal act, when the terms of reparation are discussed and agreed on, and finally when both parties reach an understanding directing the relationship between the parties and the community in the future (Sabir, 2007). Conference community sentences are tough, efficient, and effective in reducing recidivism rates. They may include unpaid work, supervision, attending an accredited program, curfew, drug treatment, or a combination of these orders.

They are intended to punish, change, control, and help. All these sentences are proportional punishments for the offenses committed. While conference community sentencing has been linked to reduction in some cases, research demonstrates that readymade programs rarely achieve the set objectives mainly due to variations in the individual factors determining offending and reoffending patterns. Thus, the effectiveness of community sentencing can be greatly improved by programs which appreciate the differences in criminogenic and non-criminogenic factors determining the propensity to recidivate.

The choice of California as the site of study is based on the fact that California has the highest recidivism rates, and that the state was one of the first to introduce alternative sentencing in their jurisdiction (Fischer 2005). Los Angeles County is chosen because it seats Los Angeles: the biggest, most populous, and more racially and ethnically diverse regions in California. As the prison population expands, the costs of corrections bulge and prison rehabilitation programs continue to exert insignificant influence on recidivism rates; alternative sentencing programs are becoming more popular.

This realization has been the main driving force behind restructuring juvenile corrections in all Californian Counties. On the other hand, the high costs associated with expanding county based treatment facilities, increasing state funding to state run correctional institutions, and establishing state run oversight bodies monitoring juvenile treatment programs and providing technical assistance; has increased the state’s reliance on non profit and private evidence based programs and services for juvenile corrections (Nadel-Hayes & Maccallair, 2005).

This paradigm shift creates the need for reassessing the intrinsic value of conference community sentencing for the cause of advancing the principles of restorative justice. The core of the research draws information from academic publications and relevant County Justice Department reports on juvenile offending, juvenile reoffending, recidivism rates, and alternatives of punishment, with particular emphasis on conference community sentencing. Background to the Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Conference Community Sentencing

California is often portrayed by the media, politicians, and the general public as the state with the highest levels of recidivism in the United States. According to a research presented by the UCIrvine Center for Evidence Based Corrections, the technical rates of offender violation far surpasses that of other states. Three year recidivism rates for ex-convicts range from 27% to 70%. Property offenders have the highest likelihood of reoffending compared to violent crime, public order, drugs offenses, and other non-serious felonies (Fischer, 2005).

These data affirm the thesis that ex-convicts in California have a higher propensity to recidivate. Recidivism rates are highly dependent on the characteristics of every individual reo-offender (Fischer, 2005; Bayer & Pozen, 2004). Several research studies have established that young male offenders who have been members of a gang, have a history of drug abuse, and extensive criminal records; are more likely to recidivate compared to convicts without these characteristics.

The higher rates of recidivism in California may also be attributed to the fact that parolees have comparatively higher rates of being rearrested and reconvicted than other states (Fisher, 2005). These high crime and recidivism rates among juvenile offenders prompted the Californian State Legislature to pass the Schiff-Cardenas Crime Prevention Act in 2000 which was later changed to Juvenile Justice Prevention Act (JJCPA) which laid the framework for the establishment of evidence based programs governing juvenile probations and rehabilitating at risk youths based on specific risk factors which predispose them to offending and reoffending.

In Los Angeles County the administration of JJCPA programs are carried out under the Los Angeles County Probation Department. Contextually, conference community sentencing programs enshrined within the JJCPA provisional framework are firmly grounded in social and ecological research on the causality of juvenile delinquencies. These programs employ multidimensional approaches recognizing the interplay between an individual’s social ecology such as community settings, neighborhood, school, peers, and family as well as a host of other crime producing risk factors in reducing the propensity to recidivate (Fain et al, 2008).

Community sentencing has gained popularity as a cost effective alternative to incarceration for offenses without mandatory sentences, offenders who do not pose a great threat to public safety and order, for offenders with a short criminal history, and for those who have committed a felony. Community based sanctions/sentencing may comprise of working for government or nongovernmental organizations in cleaning public parks, helping in the organization of community events, painting community projects, collecting trash, or even helping in nursing homes.

More importantly, the nature of the community based sanction is proportional to the severity of the crime committed (Ginger, 2003). However, there is paucity of research evidence into the effectiveness of community sentencing. Some authors have posited that community sentencing is more cost effective, humane, and effective in reducing recidivism, and facilitates offenders reintegration into the society compared to the traditional incarceration alternative (Howard, 1998).

While public interest and policy makers have consistently vouched for the introduction of community sentencing programs as better alternatives to incarceration; the empirical analysis of their effectiveness has lagged behind. Laments over the paucity of reliable empirical studies required in policy making are rampant. Again, very few comparative recidivism analyses have attempted to quantity the effectiveness of conference community sentencing for juveniles. This evaluation study investigates the effectiveness of community sentencing in California Los Angeles County.

Research Questions What are the stressors and motivators of re-offending? What are the conditions under which community conferencing should be done to raise the effectiveness in minimizing recidivism? Hypothesis H1: Sex, race, family and neighborhood, age of committing first offense, nature of first offense and diagnostic classification of juvenile convicts are specific stressors and motivators of recidivism rates. H2: Enrollment in conferencing community sentencing programs reduces juvenile recidivism rates Evaluation Site and/or the Subjects under Study

The evaluation site for this study will be California, Los Angeles County. Cases of 50 juvenile delinquents will be archived from Los Angeles County Courts. Only cases falling within the 2000-2010 timeline will be used in the study. These cases will be examined and the progress of offenders analyzed to determine the presence of re-offending. Evaluation Design Overview This evaluation study attempts to bridge the empirical gap in the effectiveness of conference community sentencing programs in California: Los Angeles County.

Using a unique dataset comprising of 50 juvenile offenders enrolled in a restorative justice program, the study will investigate the effectiveness of community sentencing programs on recidivism outcomes over the period 2000-2010. Since the sample population will be drawn from Los Angeles County Department of Juvenile Justice records, information pertaining to past criminal history, the levels of restrictiveness assigned by judges, and the socio-demographic characteristics of the juvenile offenders, will be useful in determining individual variations in the propensity to recidivate.

As opposed to solely linking the effectiveness of community sentencing programs in reducing recidivism rates, exploring individually unique propensity to recidivate rates using the aforementioned assessments is fundamental in explaining the reasons behind the success or failure of the community sentencing programs. The Design The study will utilize a longitudinal cohort retrospective study design. In a cohort retrospective study, the most reliable methodological approach for determining recidivism rates involves monitoring re-arrest, res-confinement and re-adjudication records.

However, every single record has limitations as far as measuring recidivism is concerned. For instance, reliance on arrests alone may skew results by producing very high statistical means of recidivism. This is because not all arrests proceed to trial, conviction, and incarceration. Thus, to determine recidivism rates, this study will isolate 50 juvenile cases reported between 2000 and 2010. In line with the objectives of the study, all the 50 juvenile offenders must have been enrolled in a conference community sentencing program.

Isolating the specific treatment methodology that the convicts enrolled in upon release is important in correlating the recidivism rates and the effectiveness of the restorative justice program. Further, since current research is unclear as to the underlying factors behind recidivism, the research will further examine five classes of possible stressors and motivators incriminated in juvenile recidivism.

The five potential stressors and motivators are; (a) sex, (b) race, (c) family and neighborhood background, (d) age of committing the first offense and the nature of the offense, (d) and the offenders’ diagnostic classification. Examining the nature of these stressors and motivators of recidivism is crucial in understanding not only the causal factors but also in isolating specific strategies that can be used to improve the effectiveness of restorative justice programs. Moreover, understanding individual criminologic and non-criminologic characteristics is essential in the peacemaking process.

The type of crime can further be categorized as aggressive-property (vandalism, arson) and nonaggressive-property (forgery, larceny) or aggressive-personal (forcible rape, assault) and nonaggressive personal (drug use, runaway). This categorization makes it possible to analyze the number of male and female juveniles in each crime category as well as the propensity to recidivate. Knowledge of the relationship between age of first crime commitment and recidivism is critical in determining which juvenile age groups should be given much attention to prevent re-offending.

Conference community sentencing programs can only meet the demands of restorative justice when; wrongs are acknowledged, the offender and victim share and understand the harmful effects of the criminal act, when the terms of reparation are discussed and agreed on, and finally when both parties reach an understanding directing the relationship between the parties and the community in the future. This implies that in the community sentencing alternative; the offender, the victim, the families, and the community must be represented in the peacemaking process.

Again, community living must be maintained for the program to yield positive outcomes. The philosophy behind such an inclusive process is to achieve healing for the whole community, not just the juvenile offender. Positive outcomes can only be achieved the community based programs promote whole family functioning, facilitate the development of peer relationships, and provide the necessary recreational opportunities necessary in opportunities. In a highly efficient and effective conferencing process which incorporates all influencing factors, the criminal behavior of the offender should change.

The research will evaluate the nature of the different programs that the 50 juvenile delinquents were exposed so as to ascertain whether they are suited for individual needs of the offender. In a nutshell, a critical examination of every conferencing program against a specific benchmark will provide the key determinants of an effective conferencing community program. Limitations of the Evaluation The main limitation of using this approach to test the effectiveness of conferencing programs is the lack of a single standard definition of the components of a complete program.

This means that the results drawn from this study are not generalizable. Again in a county with one of the highest number of re-offenders in the United States, a sample set of 50 juvenile delinquents is insignificant. This limits the scope of inference. However, the limited sample set is mainly attributable to financial constraints. The first limitation; lack of a standard conference community sentencing program for all delinquents, can be solved by a highly integrated longitudinal prospective study approach in which the researchers will develop a unique program, enroll juvenile delinquents and study them over time.

The second, limitation can simply be solved by allocating more financial resources and expanding the scope of the research, including the sample size. Sampling, Sample Size, and Population Characteristics The study will employ a multistage sampling technique which relies on the strengths of simple, cluster, and stratified sampling to generate a representative sample. For this evaluation, 50 cases of juvenile delinquents will be drawn from Los Angeles County Court records.

Using this information, the progress of the subjects will be mapped to determine their response to the treatment program and associated outcomes, especially re-offending and re-convictions. Individual and community data will also be collected and collated to examine the nature of the different forms of community conferencing programs in application as well as their effectiveness in achieving changes in criminal behavior, integrating the ex-convict into the society, and other associated complimentary outcomes.

Data on the effectiveness of these programs will be collected through interviewing restorative justice facilitators. Through such interviews I will be able to assess the general nature of these programs as well as what makes them successful. Information on individual characteristics of the offenders will be collected through court records and intermediaries who have had a close association and interaction with both the offender and the victim, possibly in face to face meetings.

The main limitation of using intermediaries to collect information about the overall progress of offenders in rehabilitation is the possibility of relying on sometimes biased assessments. Again, this limitation implies that the results may not be applicable to all, or a significant proportion, of juvenile delinquents not included in the study. Variables and Data Collection Methods Data will be collected from archived case reports of juvenile records from Los Angeles County Court records. All cases must have been recorded between 2000 and 2010 and Census covering the 10 years duration.

In total 50 offenders with juvenile cases who have been made to enroll in the restorative justice program will be chosen. I will only choose those who were subjected to the community conferencing method of restorative justice. The offenders, victims, and their families will be contacted through a preliminary cordial letter stating my research objectives and requesting their consent to carry out the research. Those who will have consent will be contacted through telephone and data collection will basically be done through telephone interviews.

Unless, explicitly allowed by the participants in the study, the telephone interview will not exceed thirty minutes. In cases where the participants may not be available for interview for reasons beyond the control of the researcher, the information will be collected through a self administered questionnaire. The disadvantage of interviewing through telephoning includes hanging up before the completion of the interview or refusal to pick the phone, and high costs involved making highly intensive calls to a relatively large number of participants.

Another challenge to this extensive evaluation design is also lack of adequate funding. Financial constraints will limit the number of interviews. The independent variable is community conferencing which basically involves an examination of the influences of the variable (professional guidance, identification of the unique needs of the offender, direct engagement between the victim and the offender in negotiation of responsibility and negotiation, the success of rehabilitation, and assimilation back into the community). The dependent variable in the analysis is recidivism.

The relationship between recidivism rates and the effectiveness of conferencing community sentencing program will show whether justice has been restored or not. The variables will be assessed by simple quantitative analytical techniques such as frequency counts, standard deviations, percentages, and t-test statistics. Hypothesis 1 and Hypothesis 2 will be tested using Z-Score and chi-square tests at a significance level of p? 0. 05. Finally, the effectiveness of community sentencing programs is computed by simply subtracting the calculated rates of recidivism from 100%.

The difference is the measurable success of the treatment program. Conclusion As a social construct, the United States criminal justice system must constantly adapt and evolve with changing perceptions. Three key weaknesses driving its evolution include; the inability of severe punishment methods to achieve the objectives of deterrence, growing economic costs of incarceration and increasing recidivism rates, and the complete focus on the offenders and exclusion of the victims. To redress these weaknesses, conference community sentencing has risen to become a valuable alternative sentencing.

Addressing these weaknesses is in tandem with the desires of restorative justice. So far, restorative justice has gained positive results despite its limited application. Conference community sentencing creates a consensus in which the reactions of victimization such as psychological harm, physical harm, shame, anxiety, depression, stress, insecurity, and self blame can solved by tackling the underlying causes of the initial offense and strategies that can be employed in preventing reoffending (Sabir, 2007).

Directly engaging the offender and the victim links responsibility and reparation in a single framework where both the offender and victim draw on their strengths to heal the damage caused by the criminal act in mutual trust and respect. However, it is important to note that the effectiveness of conferencing community sentencing in lowering the rates of recidivism depends on a number of factors. First, individual and community characteristics are key determinants of the efficacy of the restorative justice program.

This implies that both the victims and offenders individual characteristics should be critically examined and incorporated in the peacemaking process. It is only after a complete understanding is established that the offender may not reoffend. Again, complete understanding and negotiation of the appropriate punishment and reparation methodology makes it easier for the offender to be incorporated back into the community at the end of the criminal justice process.

My evaluation will pinpoint specific conditions under which community conferencing programs can attain the objectives of reducing recidivism rates and administering restorative justice. In context, these programs must appreciate the potential influences of community traits, norms, and customs together with criminogenic and non-criminogenic risk factors which may hamper the integration of the offender into the peacemaking process and eventual incorporation into the society.

In a nutshell, the identification of factors which influence the success of community conferencing programs is important in developing strategies which can improve their effectiveness. It therefore follows that a reliable research and evaluation design approach must advance community justice by improving outcomes related to victims of crime, community members, and offenders (http://www. ojjdp. ncjrs. gov/). Tailoring research and evaluation design with all these factors in mind ensures that community conferencing programs advance the cause of restorative justice and reduce recidivism rates.

Conference community sentencing describes community directed processes implemented in conjunction with the criminal justice system to punish and rehabilitate convicted offenders. Sometimes called sentencing circles/peacemaking circles, conferencing is a kin to a traditional ritual circle in which the offender, offender supporters, victim, victim supports, representatives of the criminal justice system (defense counsel, prosecutor, judge), together with the whole community understands the offense, identifies the best strategies for punishment and rehabilitation, and reaches a consensus to prevent reoffending (http://www. courtinfo. ca.

gov). Conference community sentencing can only meet the demands of restorative justice when; wrongs are acknowledged, the offender and victim share and understand the harmful effects of the criminal act, when the terms of reparation are discussed and agreed on, and finally when both parties reach an understanding directing the relationship between the parties and the community in the future (Sabir, 2007). Conference community sentences are tough, efficient, and effective in reducing recidivism rates. They may include unpaid work, supervision, attending an accredited program, curfew, drug treatment, or a combination of these orders.

They are intended to punish, change, control, and help. All these sentences are proportional punishments for the offenses committed. While conference community sentencing has been linked to reduction in some cases, research demonstrates that readymade programs rarely achieve the set objectives mainly due to variations in the individual factors determining offending and reoffending patterns. Thus, the effectiveness of community sentencing can be greatly improved by programs which appreciate the differences in criminogenic and non-criminogenic factors determining the propensity to recidivate.

The choice of California as the site of study is based on the fact that California has the highest recidivism rates, and that the state was one of the first to introduce alternative sentencing in their jurisdiction (Fischer 2005). Los Angeles County is chosen because it seats Los Angeles: the biggest, most populous, and more racially and ethnically diverse regions in California. As the prison population expands, the costs of corrections bulge and prison rehabilitation programs continue to exert insignificant influence on recidivism rates; alternative sentencing programs are becoming more popular.

This realization has been the main driving force behind restructuring juvenile corrections in all Californian Counties. On the other hand, the high costs associated with expanding county based treatment facilities, increasing state funding to state run correctional institutions, and establishing state run oversight bodies monitoring juvenile treatment programs and providing technical assistance; has increased the state’s reliance on non profit and private evidence based programs and services for juvenile corrections (Nadel-Hayes & Maccallair, 2005).

This paradigm shift creates the need for reassessing the intrinsic value of conference community sentencing for the cause of advancing the principles of restorative justice. The core of the research draws information from academic publications and relevant County Justice Department reports on juvenile offending, juvenile reoffending, recidivism rates, and alternatives of punishment, with particular emphasis on conference community sentencing.