by Sara Curnow Wilson

Steven Belenko has devoted his career to using data to change the criminal justice system for the better.

The criminal justice professor works with juvenile and adult justice agencies to improve substance-abuse related services for offenders. His work recently earned him the 2017 Jerry Lee Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Criminology (ASC) Division of Experimental Criminology.

The ASC is the primary international professional organization in the field, committed to fostering criminological scholarship. The award recognizes a researcher whose career has advanced evidence-based policy in the field of criminology.

“Steve Belenko’s research is cutting edge and world class,” College of Liberal Arts Dean Richard Deeg says. “It exemplifies some of the most important research in the College of Liberal Arts, which focuses on improving real-world policies and practices by applying knowledge generated in the Academy.”

Belenko works with employees of the justice system — those who work in prisons, probation agencies, jails, and court systems — to identify and match offenders in need of treatment with the care they need. His research has examined HIV and other STD prevention and treatment, as well as interventions to reduce recidivism.

The common thread that runs through his work is a devotion to training others to utilize data and improve services.

“We teach them what we call data-driven decision making,” Belenko says. “It has opened their eyes a lot. They can actually look at the numbers and see, ‘oh my god, half the kids we should have done an assessment for we didn’t.’

“Six months later they’ve seen that they’ve increased assessment and referrals. It’s very gratifying for them.”

It can be difficult to gauge success in research that takes place out in the real world, instead of in a laboratory, so Belenko tracks a number of factors using rigorous research designs. In addition to measuring recidivism and reductions in relapse for individual offenders, he looks at broader organizational changes. This means conducting surveys to assess changes in staff attitudes and studying aggregate data to determine things like referral rates and HIV testing.

The results have been significant.

It’s always been a focus of my research to work collaboratively. Criminal justice needs to be interdisciplinary. These aren’t just criminal justice issues. I need expertise from other disciplines.

Thanks to the research by Belenko and his colleagues, there are now systems in place that would not have existed without his persistence. For instance, he explains, a probation officer used to not know if someone he had referred to treatment actually followed through. Now, that information is trackable.

The work requires a great deal of cooperation from local agencies. Without them, there would be no data. While one might imagine the potential for pushback or a reluctance to share information with researchers and other agencies, this has not been his experience.  

“We often get cynical about our government agencies, but I really find that the opposite is true. They’re dedicated people who want to improve services and work with researchers to find where the gaps in services are and how to improve collaborations,” he says.

It makes sense that collaboration is key for Belenko. The criminal justice field requires it. He collaborates not only with justice agencies but also with colleagues from other departments.

“It’s always been a focus of my research to work collaboratively. Criminal justice needs to be interdisciplinary,” he says. “These aren’t just criminal justice issues. I need expertise from other disciplines.”

Belenko comes from another discipline himself. His doctorate, from Columbia, is in experimental psychology. His dissertation on alcoholism landed him a job at the Vera Institute of Justice, where he started working on criminal justice programs.

“I began to realize that the criminal justice system is where so many of society’s problems come together. I saw that the impacts of social and health problems—and political problems as well—on crime were very profound, and that was something I wanted to study and hopefully ameliorate.”

From there, he took research positions at places like the mayor’s office in New York City, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania before joining Temple’s faculty in 2006.

During his 11 years at Temple, Belenko has been principal investigator on a number of grants and has brought more than $8 million in funding to the University.

There are still a few years left on his current grants, but he is also thinking ahead.

In the future, he plans to work in the area of opioid abuse and overdose while continuing his work in the juvenile justice system and with organizational level interventions.

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