The impact of an educational intervention on attitudes and beliefs of law students about "what works" in juvenile rehabilitation
Opinions about "what works" in juvenile justice are often based on poorly informed beliefs and attitudes rather than on scientific evidence. Disseminating credible information remains a challenge. Studies have identified programs that effectively address juvenile offenders while exposing "get tough" alternatives as ineffective. It is important to communicate these findings to future legal policy professionals, many of whom will come from the ranks of today's law students. Previous findings by this author suggest that belief barriers may impact openness to empirical evidence. The current study addressed two questions: Can brief, on-line educational modules change participant knowledge and beliefs about "what works"? How will attitudes influence receptivity to new information? The 161 nationally recruited law students who completed this study were randomly assigned to one of two experimental groups (Module One: "benefits of empirically-supported programs [ESP]" or Module Two: "weaknesses of unsupported programs") or a control group (Module Three: general information about juvenile crime). Prior to receiving an educational module, participants completed surveys regarding demographics, baseline justice related attitudes, and beliefs about program effectiveness. After completing the modules, participants rated program effectiveness again. Results at pre-test demonstrated that individuals were readily categorized as having either a treatment-focused "supportive" belief system or a punitive "get tough" belief system. The "supportive" group tended to rate ESP as highly effective while the "get tough" participants tended to rate unsupported programs as highly effective, while also emphasizing the lack of effectiveness for ESP. Although baseline attitudes were significant predictors of pre-test program ratings, at post-test, it was clear that exposure to Module One not only produced the expected result (i.e., raising the ESP effectiveness ratings), but also had a notable carryover and corrective influence on subsequent ratings of unsupported programs. Module Two also produced expected results (i.e., lowering the post-test ratings of unsupported program effectiveness). Following exposure to educational modules based on empirical evidence, it appeared that pre-existing attitudes no longer played a significant role in assigning program effectiveness ratings. Module One had a particularly robust effect on post-test ratings; these were in line with the research literature on "what works" in juvenile intervention.