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Quick and Dirty

RESTARTing From Scratch

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 3/22/2006

The state Senate recently arrived on familiar territory in its search for fat to hack from Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s $29 billion state budget. Retroactive raises for the state’s underpaid correctional officers were cut last week in addition to $481,000 carved from Project RESTART, Ehrlich’s much ballyhooed, if vague, plan to turn imprisoned, drug-addicted criminals into productive members of society. RESTART—short for Re-entry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation, and Treatment—started two years ago as a pilot project in two prisons, after the legislature rejected a much more costly roll-out into the whole correctional system. But correctional officers, and many of their bosses, resisted the program, saying that Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar cut guards’ ranks in order to pay for the softer, more social-worker-oriented RESTART (“Prisoners of Bureaucracy,” April 13, 2005).

The RESTART issue is contentious enough that the state Republican Party e-mailed members in an effort to rally Republicans to the cause.

“Unfortunately in this election year, the Democrat-led General Assembly is poised to cut nearly $500,000 for Project RESTART out of Governor Ehrlich’s 2007 budget as they assert their partisanship over the budget process,” the e-mail, sent March 8, read. It linked to an article in The Washington Post lauding the RESTART program. (The Senate’s cuts still have to get through the House of Delegates.)

“Our biggest concern is that we will be permitted to expand RESTART into the pre-release centers,” says Jackie Lampell, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety. Without that expansion, some inmates who have begun RESTART programs will be cut off when they leave prison, all but guaranteeing failure.

For weeks, Ehrlich has used the threat of these cuts to argue that the Democrat-controlled legislature is compromising public safety. He has said that RESTART comprises “proven,” “evidence-based” programs that really work to reduce recidivism. The problem with that is that the evidence is mixed.

Partly, that is unavoidable, as RESTART is too new to provide evidence of its effectiveness. “We do a three-year study on recidivism,” Lampell says. “We started this in 2004. We’re not at the point yet where we have the kind of statistics that show it is working.”

But RESTART is also part of the largest trend in corrections: a return to an emphasis on rehabilitation that was rejected in the 1970s. The new programs are often built around cognitive restructuring, a system of psychological training that helps addicts kick their bad habits. There is evidence that this works well for the general population. But programs aimed at prisoners, which have been studied for more than a decade, have returned mixed results. And some experts say that the studies that appear to show the most success are the worst-designed studies, while studies that are well-designed and rigorously controlled often show poor results for the RESTART-style programs.

“There are always disagreements in the scientific community, even in the medical community,” Lampell says. She references a January study of studies—a “meta study”—by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy that found excellent success in many RESTART-like programs. The meta-study’s authors weeded out the least rigorous studies. As part of that process they weeded out all but one study of RESTART’s core cognitive restructuring program, Thinking for a Change. The study also found that community-based case management for drug offenders—the next step in RESTART after release from prison—is ineffective.

Lampell falls back on the theory that doing something has got to be better than doing nothing. “Starting them with more than $40 in their pocket,” she says, “is a better way to go.”

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