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You've muddied the water, Minister Thwaites

Monday, January 27, 2014    

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THE members of the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus, consider it our duty to contribute to the current discussion about the purported relationship between attendance at selected Jamaican schools and subsequent conviction for the commission of a criminal offence and imprisonment. While we share the minister of education's concern about the maladaptive behaviours manifested by too many students in our schools, and many of the remedial actions he outlined indeed have some value, we think that it is regrettable that these eminently worthwhile recommendations were based on such an insecure foundation.

Given the size of the challenge we face as a people, we believe that we need not just well-intentioned policies, but policies grounded in rigorous empirical and experiential data and drawing on relevant academic and policy research, technical reports and evaluations of similar programmes.

Let us look at the research report, Education and Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates in Jamaica, on which the minister's policy statement has been based. Let us begin with the fact that, although we are told how many study participants there were (894), and that they are representative of the prison population, the report does not include data on the size of the total population from which the sample was drawn. It also does not provide any data on the characteristics of the prison population. The reader is therefore not able to decide whether the researchers have actually done what they say they have done.

Interestingly, although 43 women were interviewed, they completely disappear from the rest of the report, though they are five times greater in number than the number of respondents attending eight of the 18 schools that were named and are now shamed by being labelled "prison schools" in the press. We cannot believe that the minister did not anticipate that this would have been the outcome, given the previous furore around schools that were named as "failing".

We are intrigued by the fact that the questionnaire used in the study was pretested on members of staff of the Research, Planning and Legal Service Branch (RPLSB) of the JCF. Are the study's authors suggesting that their co-workers share enough characteristics with the prison population as to be an apropriate group to be used to test the validity of the questionnaire? Furthermore, we wonder about data collection being done by police personnel, albeit members of RPLSB. We hope that they at least wore civilian clothing, but must confess that we feel a mockery has been made of the ethical principle of voluntary participation. Finally, we wonder how the 16 questions asked in the study could have been asked and answered in a mere five minutes. It is these factors, moreso than the researchers not being able to consult inmates' files, that bring the validity of the data presented into question.

Although we do think that a public that is educated to evaluate the quality of research is a public empowered to better engage in debates about policy, we do not wish to bore your readers so we will raise only two other points in relation to the research on which the honourable minister's prescriptions are based.

The first of these two points relates to the data that is presented. In truth, the many tables are merely a record of the number of times the particular phenomenon, eg age at time of first arrest was found. There is no evidence that the researcher conducted the detailed statistical analysis that would be required to establish the relationships being sought. For example, to tell us the number of times persons have been imprisoned without giving us information about the age groups into which they fall and the types of offences for which there are recurring rounds of imprisonment, is to fail to provide policy-relevant data. Similarly, to tell us that 148 (17%) of the study participants were first arrested for breaches of the Dangerous Drugs Act, without telling us what proportion of these breaches were for possession of ganja, is unhelpful. Most telling is the fact that the study's authors devoted a mere three paragraphs to the analysis and discussion of their findings before moving on to making their recommendations.

On the sole occasion when a statistical analysis was attempted -- supposedly establishing a relationship between coming from a single-parent household and being convicted of a crime -- we could not find the question on which this data was based. The questionnaire did ask about the person playing the most significant role in the participant's upbringing. The answer to this question cannot yield data about the person(s) with whom the inmate lived as a child. The mother who was most frequently identified as playing that role could have been living and working in Cayman, sending money regularly and keeping in touch by telephone while the child lived with an aunt or family friend in Jamaica.

In conclusion, we need to point out that only one of the 12 recommendations contained in the report bear any relation to the data presented; that is the recommendation to target financial assistance to students who are vulnerable, since they report that 25 per cent of the study participants dropped out of school because of financial difficulty. However even in this regard, we wonder about the appropriateness of this recommendation since the PATH initiative has this as one of its goals. Another of the recommendations made us wonder how much effort the researchers made to inform themselves about existing policy. The authors recommended that the policy of automatic promotion of students to secondary schools be discontinued. This has in fact been the case, although imperfectly, for some years.

We have gone to some length to convey not only our disquiet but also to make the point that the ends do not -- at least in this case -- justify the means; as some of the responses to the public debate have suggested. As one member of our group who participated in reviewing the study commented: "If you muddy the water upstream, some of it is bound to come flowing through the taps downstream." We are pleased that some attention is being given to the issue of the sources and causes of crime and criminal behaviour, and particularly how we can reduce the number of young persons who become involved in crime. We must insist, however, that the policies that are framed to address these problems demonstrate an appreciation of their dynamic and multifaceted nature and engage those affected in their formulation. For our part, we welcome an invitation from the minister to contribute to this process.

We are quite willing to meet, as well, with the study's authors to share with them a more detailed review and our recommendations about how this work might best be done, and perhaps explore what additional training we can offer to members of the RPLSB to strengthen their capacity to perform their duties. Our policymakers should also consider the reputational harm that can be caused, bearing in mind that the report is in the public domain.

This piece is co-authored by:

Dr Heather Ricketts, Head, Dept Sociology, Psychology & Social Work

Dr Peta-Anne Baker, Coordinator, Social Work Unit

Ms Shawna Kae Burns; Dr Sandra Chadwick-Parkes;, Ms Sandra Latibeaudiere; Aldene Shillingford

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