The following are remarks by Doris Layton MacKenzie, Retired Professor of Criminology from the University of Maryland and Penn State University upon receipt of the Distinguished Achievement Award in Evidence-Based Crime Policy. These remarks are also featured in the Fall 2017 issue of Translational Criminology Magazine.
What research did I want to do for the rest of my academic career? This was the question I asked myself in the late 1970s as I was finishing up my PhD in psychology. The theoretical linguistic work I had done for my master’s was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my research career. I tried several different avenues, but none of them seemed perfect for my interests.
At about this time, Lynne Goodstein, John Hepburn, and John Kramer were searching for someone to act as a research assistant for a new grant they had received from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) for research on determinate sentencing. They were criminologists in a different college from the psychology department where I was studying so I was not familiar with their work. They hired me for the position, and there began my career in criminology.
As part of the research, I was required to visit prisons and interview administrators, staff, and inmates. I found the work fascinating. My study in psychology was certainly relevant to issues related to offenders’ behavior. At the time, as a result in part of federal government funding, criminal justice (also known as criminology or administration of justice) was a growing field in academia, and there was a great need for people who had research and data analysis skills, the type of expertise students in psychology departments acquired through their studies. The growth of these disciplines also meant that many departments were looking for academics interested in criminology. This combined with my interests, training, and experience made the field of criminology ideal for me.
As I began my career in criminal justice, there were some shocking conflicts between my psychology training and the perspectives of many academics in criminal justice who had most often been trained in sociology or criminal justice studies. First, many of these academics considered research and theory on individual differences a racist perspective and thus, not a legitimate area of study. Psychologists regularly study the differences among individuals, so it was a surprise to me to be criticized for studying these differences.
In addition, some people in the field scorned quantitative research as “number crunching” and therefore did not consider experimental and quasi-experimental techniques exemplary research designs. Others criticized evaluations examining the effectiveness of correctional rehabilitation programs and management techniques. They argued that “nothing works” to reduce recidivism in correctional treatment and so such research was useless.
In addition, many argued that attitudes, information processing, and cognition were not important concepts in understanding criminal behavior. As they came from sociological perspectives, they believed social conditions were the important causes of criminal activity. Thus, some criminal justice researchers rejected the psychological perspective emphasizing the importance of considering the need to understand these individual differences. It was a challenging time for psychologists working in criminology.
My first employment after receiving my PhD from Penn State was at Louisiana State University (LSU), a joint appointment in the Departments of Experimental Statistics and Administration of Justice. I was interested in doing field research, so I contacted administrators and staff in state and local correctional systems to discuss research possibilities.
One day soon after one of these meetings, a psychologist in one of the prisons called me to say they were starting a new program in the prison and he thought it would be ideal for a research study. This led to my first study of boot camps and my first grant from the NIJ. For quite a few years, boot camps were the major focus of my research. I moved from LSU to an appointment as a visiting scholar at NIJ and from there to the University of Maryland (UMD).
Correctional boot camps were very popular and I was one of the first to begin studying them. My colleagues and I studied the Louisiana boot camp, and conducted national studies of state correctional boot camps and environments of juvenile boot camps.
I became known as the research expert on correctional boot camps. I consulted with state and local jurisdictions about boot camps, testified before state commissions and the U.S. Congress, and appeared on TV and radio news shows. When I was at UMD, requests from news reporters and others became so numerous I had to ask the publicity department to screen the calls. In part, this attention was due to the properties of the boot camps: They made good “sound bites” for TV, many people believed that offenders should be treat harshly as punishment for their past criminal activities, and others had a “gut feeling” that this would help young people grow up.
One of the last studies I did on this topic was an experimental study of the Maryland boot camp program. The secretary of the Department of Corrections asked me why I hadn’t studied the Maryland boot camp program since I was working at UMD. I said I had been interested, but no one would agree to evaluate the program using experimental design with random assignment. Existing studies had all used quasi-experimental designs, but at this point we needed a strong study to provide evidence of the impact of these programs. He agreed and we conducted the experiment.
Very early in the research we learned that the physical exercise and the demanding environment common in many boot camps were not the components that reduce offender recidivism. However, it took many years of repeating this message before administrators of boot camps began to understand that the participants needed treatment. The Maryland experiment helped to give us more information about these programs and how they compared to other management strategies. I leave it to you to read the details of the work. But the bottom line is that correctional boot camps are not all bad or all good; it depends on how they are designed and operated.
The next major event in my career was my work with Larry Sherman, Jerry Lee, and my colleagues. This work started when Sherman applied for a grant from the NIJ to work on an evaluation of crime prevention programs for the U.S. Congress. The report, Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising was the result of this work. One amazing thing about this project was how so many of my colleagues worked together to prepare the report. Another was that we completed it in the required six months! This work led to my research on “What Works in Corrections?” examining the effectiveness of correctional programs, and management strategies.
This was an exciting time, as we focused on the quality of research designs and how to translate the results so they were useful for practitioners and policy makers. After finishing the Preventing Crime report, Denise Gottfredson and I were interested in using meta-analysis to continue to evaluate crime prevention programs. Thanks to the generosity and work of Lee, we hired David Wilson, now department chair at George Mason University and a senior fellow in the CEBCP, to assist us in learning and completing meta-analyses. Along with the outstanding graduate students at UMD, Wilson and I completed quite a few meta-analyses evaluating the effectiveness of various correctional programs and strategies in reducing the later recidivism of offenders. We did several meta-analyses for the Campbell Collaboration and I summarized this work in my book, What Works in Corrections: Reducing the Recidivism of Delinquents and Offenders (2006, Cambridge University Press).
More recently, the Sociology and Criminology Department from Penn State was interested in starting a research center and I was asked to be its founding director. The primary mission of the Justice Center for Research is to promote and share research evidence relevant for criminal justice theory and practice. The center has worked to establish strong relationships with scholars and practitioners at the local, state, national, and even international levels. Faculty and administrators of the center are also working to connect practitioners and alumni with young scholars. They identify promising undergraduate and graduate students to assist in center-sponsored projects and also apply for research funding.
Through the center, important contributions are being made to the body of evidence regarding “what works” in criminal justice practice promoting informed dialogue on criminal justice policy. Thus, I have come full circle, from being provided an opportunity to do research as a young academic to now providing these opportunities for our future scholars through our center to continue the work of which I have been involved for so many years. I am honored to receive this award from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.