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The Evidence Enigma
Correctional Boot Camps and Other Failures in Evidence-Based Policymaking

By Tiffany Bergin
Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited. 2013

Bergin’s rigorous multi-method study of correctional boots camps in the United States reveals how both American politics and culture were the driving force behind one of the most proclaimed and highly publicised, but failed crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Bergin questions why policymakers sometimes adopt policies that are not supported by evidence and how practitioners can encourage policymakers to base their decisions on sound research. As such, Bergin presents a case study of the correctional boot camp policy that, although spread throughout the United States fairly quickly, was unsuccessful at achieving its desired goals. By examining the claims on which the implementation of the policy were based, this book addresses the political, economical and cultural factors that influenced the widespread belief that such a policy would reduce reoffending, save public money and ease overcrowding, although none of these assertions collectively proved to be correct. In an attempt to present important findings on the abundance of policies that simply do not work and to provide lessons for safeguarding against the implementation of such policies in the future, this book would be of interest to those working within the realm of social and public policy, and to those in the fields of criminology and sociology.

The Evidence Enigma is divided into seven chapters. The first two identify the need for research within this area of study and include some history and background on the spread and development of boot camps in the United States. It also discusses the complexities, problems and critiques of evidence-based policymaking both from a general perspective and from one that more specifically illustrates the phenomena from a correctional or criminal justice viewpoint. Chapter Three provides an overview of the different types of correctional boots camps in the United States with a detailed focus on research evidence. Chapter Four is of great interest to those who wish to have a better understanding of the ways in which public policies are diffused. Essentially, this chapter outlines the various theories associated with the policymaking process and describes the precise explanations that criminologists have offered about the spread of boot camps. Many of the theories and explanations considered in this chapter are empirically tested for the first time in Bergin’s research, as they influenced the selection of predictor variables in the quantitative component and the coding procedures used in the qualitative section of the study.

Chapter Five lends itself to the various quantitative models of the diffusion and contraction of boot camps in the United States. Not only are these models discussed in detail throughout the chapter, but the various difficulties and challenges presented throughout the research are outlined. Most notably were the aspects pertaining to the decisions that were made about the most accurate ways to quantify political, economic, and social constructs in order to test their effects on boot camp adoption and abolition. Further, because policymaking is often a convoluted process, the author reminds her readers that the quantitative results presented in the chapter are to be interpreted cautiously. Thus, in order to unravel complex social processes, “thinking scientifically about politics involves knowing the limits of science” (Pp.39). Given that relatively few previous studies of the diffusion of criminal justice policies have used qualitative methods, Chapter Six adds a qualitative component by including case studies of two American states. Bergin selects Illinois and New Jersey for inclusion in her research so their experiences could be explored in great depth. It is here where the reader comes to appreciate the ways in which these individual experiences are similar and different, both in terms of the policymaking involved (the decision to adopt boot camps and the associated aspects of politics, ideology and economics), and the relative success or failure in conjunction with research evidence and expert opinion. This chapter also sheds light on a number of other issues such as public opinion data and county-run boots camps relative to the ways in which boot camps were conceptualized by supporters and detractors, how policymakers defended their decisions, and the social forces and historical events which may have influenced policymakers’ actions.

Finally, Chapter Seven identifies areas for further analysis and future implications. Bergin concludes her research by integrating the quantitative and qualitative findings and by discussing each of these components in light of their methodological limitations. Overall, the findings presented by Bergin show that, in place of research evidence, other factors (such as political ideology, racial demographics, practical consideration, and the influence of key stakeholders) were associated with the diffusion and contraction of boot camps. From these results, however, readers should recognize that policymaking is not only complex and multidimensional, but that the impact of evidence on policy is not straightforward. Instead, the impact of evidence on policy is frequently mediated by political, cultural, and economic factors.

Taline Kassabian
University of Waterloo

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