Guest Column

Researcher-practitioner partnerships in correctional psychology: Why they are important and tips toward building them

Some tips for building successful research partnerships in correctional psychology.

By Jennifer Eno Louden, PhD

AP-LS members who are psychologists in correctional settings often fulfill one of two professional roles. On the one hand, researchers seek to identify ways to better assess and treat criminal behavior and how to meet the needs of specialty groups, such as offenders with mental illness. On the other hand, practitioners, usually clinical psychologists, conduct assessments and provide treatment to offenders. Certainly, psychologists in both groups perform other tasks as part of their job duties, such as administrative work, formal teaching and clinical supervision of students and interns. However, the two worlds of clinicians and researchers do not cross nearly as often as they could. In this article, we hope to open a dialog about researcher-practitioner partnerships with the goal of encouraging and facilitating these crucial interactions.

Why should practitioners develop partnerships with researchers?

In his 2010 presidential address to APA Div. 18 (Psychologists in Public Service), Robert Morgan (current member of AP-LS's Corrections Committee) called upon public service psychologists to return to their roots as social scientists. Bob pointed to the fact psychologists in correctional settings (many of whom are also members of AP-LS) are often the only service providers for offenders — more people with serious mental illness are treated in correctional facilities than are treated in psychiatric hospitals. These individuals have complex treatment needs — practitioners in correctional settings are ideally situated to advance understanding of effective practices of this group because they work directly with them every day. Research has led to higher quality practices in corrections, but there is room for additional improvement. Bob also pointed out the need for practitioners to evaluate their current practices, because they are often asked to justify their existence to administrators and bureaucrats. However, there is usually little time for practitioners to devote to research or program evaluation. On the other hand, researchers are often looking for novel research ideas and opportunities. A practitioner-researcher partnership can be mutually beneficial because it can lead to publication for the researcher and improved practices for the practitioner.

Most practitioners have training in the social sciences, and many are active consumers of research to inform their clinical work. By working closely with researchers, practitioners can ensure that the research base adequately reflects their needs and those of their clients. In addition, researchers can help practitioners ensure they are adequately measuring outcomes of interest so they have useful data when asked to provide evidence of their effectiveness to administrators. Although many researchers have some experience doing clinical work, they may not fully appreciate the challenges faced by practitioners — partnerships can ensure that researchers produce research that is relevant to practitioners.

Why should researchers develop partnerships with practitioners?

Whereas practitioners lack the time to devote to research, researchers' primary goal is to conduct research. What researchers may lack is access to participants and secondary data to answer their research questions. In his 2010 article, Bob describes his longtime partnership with Daryl Kroner and Jeremy Mills, two psychologists working in correctional institutions (although Daryl has since defected to the world of academia). The trio have built a productive partnership that has resulted in grant funding and numerous publications, all while capitalizing on each individual's expertise and resources.

Researchers try to identify meaningful questions to study; as mentioned above, consultation with the practitioners who work on the front lines with the populations they seek to improve outcomes for can help refine research questions. In addition, practitioners can provide valuable insight into interventions developed by researchers — they can rely on their experience to let researchers know what won't work and why. Practitioners can also give researchers insight into the populations of interest given their experience working with their clients. For example, Wolff and colleagues (2013) conducted a survey of clinicians working with justice-involved clients and discovered that these clients had needs that were more complex than researchers appreciated. The authors suggested that interventions to reduce the criminal justice involvement of individuals with serious mental illness could be improved by taking into account the input of practitioners. Practitioners likely have a wealth of information on a range of other concerns relevant to researchers. Given that practitioners often have training in social science research methods, they may also offer critical feedback on research design.

Tips for developing successful partnerships
  • Start small. Many partnerships are initiated when a researcher applies for a large research grant. However, partnerships don't necessarily require grant funding, and starting off with a small project can be a good way for teams to get to know each other. Practitioners may have data that researchers could analyze or ideas for data that could be collected easily. Working on a small project can help teams learn to work together and work out any issues without the stresses of a large grant.
  • Communication is key. When exploring the possibility of a partnership, it is a good practice to listen to the needs and interests of the other party rather than going in with a list of requests. As the partnership progresses, it is helpful to meet regularly to discuss any issues that have arisen and address them. It is helpful to have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining the expectations and requirements of either side (these are generally required for federally funded grants). Misunderstandings are inevitable and should be expected. Keep in mind that the other party may use professional “language” that is unfamiliar; ask them to clarify when needed.
  • Be flexible. The priorities of researchers and practitioners are often very different. While researchers are concerned with the collection of high-quality data, practitioners prioritize work with their clients. Practitioners may have interest in questions about local questions whereas researchers may have more “big picture” questions. Using clear communication can result in a win-win scenario where both sides have their needs met.
  • Disseminate. After research is concluded, researchers, especially those in academic positions, seek to publish their work lest they perish. Research is often disseminated primarily to other researchers via academic journals, but the ostensible goal of correctional research is to solve real world problems. As noted by Phil Magaletta and his colleagues (2007) in their article “Toward the one: Strengthening behavioral sciences research in corrections,” correctional researchers often devote a single paragraph to the implications for practice of their work. Researchers should be thoughtful in considering the range of possible applications for their work, and consult with practitioners to generate more idea. In addition, researchers should disseminate their findings to practitioners; not just those they partner with, but the field beyond. This can be accomplished by publishing in trade publications and attending practitioner-focused conferences.

Further reading

Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships Study (RPPS) [http://medicine.yale.edu/lab/sullivan/research/partnership.aspx]

Bales, W. D., Scaggs, S. J., Clark, C. L., Ensley, D., & Coltharp, P. (2014). Researcher--practitioner partnerships: A case of the development of a long-term collaborative project between a university and a criminal justice agency. Criminal Justice Studies, 27, 294-307

Heilbrun, K., & Erickson, J. (2007). Academic psychology and corrections: The utility of partnerships. Corrections Today, 69, 55-59.

Lane, J., Turner, S., & Flores, C. (2004). Researcher-practitioner collaboration in community corrections: Overcoming hurdles for successful partnerships. Criminal Justice Review, 29, 97-114

Magaletta, P. R., Morgan, R. D., Reitzel, L. R., & Innes, C. A. (2007). Toward the one: Strengthening behavioral sciences research in corrections. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34, 933-944. doi:10.1177/009385480730156

Morgan, R. D. (2011). If not us, then who? Presidential address. Psychological Services, 8, 140-150. doi:10.1037/a002372

Wolff, N., Frueh, B. C., Huening, J., Shi, J., Epperson, M. W., Morgan, R., & Fisher, W. (2013). Practice informs the next generation of behavioral health and criminal justice interventions. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 36, 1-10. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2012.11.00