EPIS leads evidence-based prevention of youth recidivism in PA

EPIS logo

A recent validation study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Florida International University suggests that the implementation of the Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol (SPEP™) has positive results for Pennsylvania juvenile justice services, finding that improvement in SPEP™ scores between initial assessment and reassessment is associated with better recidivism outcomes. The study is the first to encompass all four dimensions of service provider program operations covered in a SPEP™ assessment, all of which have been shown to predict reduced youth recidivism: 

  • the type of therapeutic service,
  • amount of service (number of hours and duration),
  • quality of service delivery; and
  • risk level and aggressive/violent history of youth served by the program.

Figure 1: Types of Services Evaluated by the SPEP

The SPEP™ functions as a program evaluation tool that aligns services delivery to evidence-based research through an ongoing performance improvement process that is repeated via reassessments. It determines how well aspects of an existing intervention (or service) match the characteristic of those interventions found to be most effective in reducing recidivism, based on a meta-analysis of over 700 studies conducted by Dr. Mark Lipsey of Vanderbilt University, ranging from 1950 to 2014. 

The SPEP™ team at the Evidence-based Prevention and Intervention Support Program (EPIS) team of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center (PRC), led by SPEP™ Project Manager Shawn Peck, works with rural and urban juvenile justice programs and probation departments statewide to train them to implement-the SPEP™, through interviews and the collection of service delivery data. 

To provide data for the validation study, they worked closely with the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission to produce a single data set containing information about a range of services and the characteristics and outcomes of groups approximately 2,400 individuals who received those services. To date, EPIS has conducted approximately 300 SPEP™ assessments alongside juvenile probation departments and is well-regarded as a national leader in SPEP™ training, and for its strong partnerships with probation officers and service providers.

"Data for decision-making is the spirit of the Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy," said Peck.

As explained in the validation study report, "the SPEP™ gives service providers a research-based profile of their service as it compares to other similar programs along several specific dimensions related to recidivism reduction. For juvenile justice system administrators, the SPEP™ provides an overview of the array of services adopted at the system level, a 'best practice' standard against which to evaluate those programs, and a roadmap for improving system-level outcomes related to recidivism."

While 19 states have utilized the SPEP™ process for juvenile justice reform, Pennsylvania is one of a few states to have a university partnership to implement the SPEP™.

"The partnerships between state juvenile justice stakeholders and the PRC provides SPEP™ staff with ready access to cutting-edge expertise in prevention and implementation science, including study methodology, data analysis, and interpretation of complex data," said Janet Welsh, PRC Research Professor and EPIS Director. "The SPEP™ validation study is an excellent example of the way in which researcher-practitioner partnerships can simultaneously advance the science of prevention and improve outcomes for Pennsylvania's youth communities."

Looking toward the future

The EPIS team is hard at work paving the way for a potential future validation study, refining data collection practices to make future validation studies easier to conduct, and continuing to reassess services.

"Our goal for a follow-up validation study is to be able to show - what no other state can show -- a juvenile justice service's longitudinal transformation because of SPEP," said Peck. 

The Pennsylvania Commission of Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) fund EPIS to implement the SPEP™. SPEP™ implementation is coordinated with the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission and the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers. The SPEP™ validation study was funded by PCCD; the full validation report can be accessed on the PCCD website.

People Mentioned in this Article

Shawn Peck Janet Welsh