Cutting Recidivism: What Works, What Doesn’t

Edward J. Latessa, Ph.D.
Professor & Director
School of Criminal Justice
University of Cincinnati

There’s a right way and many wrong ways to solve most problems, including the problem of how to reduce high offender recidivism rates. Scholarly researchers have identified the approaches that do work, and revealed those that don’t.-ED

“What works” is not a program or an intervention, but a body of knowledge based on over thirty years of research that has been conducted by numerous scholars in North America and Europe. Also referred to as evidence-based practice, the “what works” movement demonstrates empirically that theoretically sound, well-designed programs that meet certain conditions can appreciable reduce recidivism rates for offenders. Through the review and analysis of hundreds of studies, researchers have identified a set of principles that should guide correctional programs.

Target high-risk offenders for greater success
The first is the risk principle, or the “who” to target: those offenders who pose the higher risk of continued criminal conduct. This principle states that our most intensive correctional treatment and intervention programs should be reserved for higher-risk offenders. Risk in this context refers to those offenders with a higher probability of recidivating.

Why waste our programs on offenders who do not need them? This is a waste of resources, and more importantly, research has clearly demonstrated that when we place lower-risk offenders in our more structured programs, we often increase their failure rates (and thus reduce the overall effectiveness of the program). There are several reasons this occurs. First, placing low-risk offenders together with higher-risk offenders only serves to increase the chances of failure for the low risk.

For example, let’s say that your teenage son or daughter did not use drugs, but got into some trouble with the law. Would you want them in a program or group with heavy drug users? Of course you wouldn’t, since it is more likely that the higher-risk youth would influence your child more than the other way around.

Second, placing low-risk offenders in these programs also tends to disrupt their prosocial networks; in other words, the very attributes that make them low risk become interrupted, attributes such as school, employment, family, and so forth. Remember, if they do not have these attributes, it is unlikely they are low risk to begin with. The risk principle can best be seen from a 2002 study of offenders in Ohio who were placed in a halfway house or community-based correctional facility (CBCF). The study found that the recidivism rate for higher-risk offenders who were placed was reduced, while the recidivism rates for the low-risk offenders that were placed in the programs actually increased. We recently replicated this study with over 20,000 offenders, and once again saw the same effect; overall there was a 6 percent increase in recidivism rates for low-risk offenders and a 10 percent reduction for high risk.

Target factors that correlate with crime
The second principle is referred to as the need principle, or the “what” to target: criminogenic factors that are highly correlated with criminal conduct. The need principle states that programs should target crime-producing needs, such as antisocial attitudes, values, and beliefs, antisocial peer associations, substance abuse, lack of problem-solving and self-control skills, as well as other factors that are highly correlated with criminal conduct. Researchers such as Andrews, Bonta, Gendreau and others have identified a major set of risk factors:

1. Antisocial/procriminal attitudes, values, beliefs and cognitive emotional states
2. Procriminal associates and isolation from anticriminal others
3. Temperamental and antisocial personality patterns conducive to criminal activity including:

o Weak socialization
o Impulsivity
o Adventurous
o Restless/aggressiveness
o Egocentrism
o A taste for risk
o Weak problem-solving/self-regulation and coping skills

4. A history of antisocial behavior
5. Familial factors that include criminality and psychological problems in the family including:

o Low levels of affection, caring and cohesiveness
o Poor parental supervision and discipline practices
o Outright neglect and abuse

6. Low levels of personal, educational, vocational or financial achievement
7. Low levels of involvement in prosocial leisure activities
8. Substance abuse

Although these eight domains constitute the major set, the first four are considered the most important and are often referred to as the “big four”. If you successful target and change these four, the others often follow.

When recidivism treatment fails, why?
A recent study conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections confirms the importance of these risk factors. This study examined men and women on parole, and looked at who failed and who succeeded: Failures were:

• More likely to hang around with individuals with criminal backgrounds
• Less likely to live with a spouse
• Less likely to be in a stable supportive relationship
• Less likely to identify someone in their life who served in a mentoring capacity
• Less likely to have job stability
• Less likely to be satisfied with employment
• Less likely to take low-end jobs, and work up
• More likely to have negative attitudes toward employment and unrealistic job expectations
• Less likely to have a bank account
• More likely to report that they were “barely making it”
• More likely to report use of alcohol or drugs while on parole
• Had unrealistic expectations about what life would be like outside of prison
• Had poor problem-solving or coping skills
• Did not anticipate long-term consequences of behavior
• Failed to utilize resources to help themselves
• Acted impulsively to immediate situations
• Felt they were not in control
• More likely to maintain antisocial attitudes
• Viewed violations as an acceptable option to situation
• Maintained general lack of empathy
• Shifted blame or denied responsibility

Interestingly, successes and failures did not differ in difficulty for finding a place to live after release, and were equally likely to report eventually obtaining a job. The most important factors centered around attitudes, whether they be about work, or behavior, social support systems, peers, and temperament and skill deficiencies.

Which recidivism programs don’t work well
It is important to remember that programs need to ensure that the vast majority of their interventions are focused on these factors. Non-criminogenic factors such as self-esteem, physical conditioning, understanding one’s culture or history, and creative abilities will not have much effect on recidivism rates.

An example of a program that tends to target non-criminogenic factors can be seen in offender-targeted military-style boot camps. These programs tend to focus on non-criminogenic factors, such as drill and ceremony, physical conditioning, discipline, self-esteem, and bonding offenders together. Because they tend to focus on non-crime producing needs, boot camps have little impact on future criminal behavior according to most studies. It is also important to remember that high-risk offenders have multiple risk factors, which is why programs that tend to be one-dimensional are much less effective than programs that target multiple risk factors.

Effective treatments are behavioral in nature
The third principle is the treatment principle, or the “how:” the ways in which correctional programs should target risk and need factors. This principle states that the most effective treatments are behavioral in nature. Behavioral programs have several attributes. First, they are centered on the present circumstances and risk factors that are responsible for the offender’s behavior. Hanging around with the wrong people, not going to work or school, using drugs or alcohol to excess, are examples of current risk factors, whereas focusing on the past is not very productive, mainly because one cannot change the past.

Second, behavioral programs are action oriented rather than talk oriented. In other words, offenders do something about their difficulties rather than just talk about them. These approaches are used to teach offenders new, prosocial skills to replace the antisocial ones (e.g. stealing, cheating, lying, etc.) through modeling, practice, and reinforcement.

An example of behavioral programs would be structured social learning programs where new skills are taught, and behaviors and attitudes are consistently reinforced. Other examples would include cognitive behavioral programs that target attitudes, values, peers, substance abuse and anger, etc., and family-based interventions that train family on appropriate behavioral techniques.

Interventions based on these approaches are very structured, and emphasize the importance of modeling and behavioral rehearsal techniques that engender self-efficacy, challenge of cognitive distortions, and assist offenders in developing good problem-solving and self-control skills. These strategies have been demonstrated to be effective in reducing recidivism.

Non-behavioral treatments don’t work
Non-behavioral interventions that are often ineffectively used in programs would include drug and alcohol education, fear tactics and other emotional appeals, talk therapy, non-directive client-centered approaches, having them read books, shaming them, lectures, milieu therapy, and self-help. Likewise, programs (regardless of the model) that cannot maintain fidelity (i.e. constant staff turnover), or are vague and unstructured (i.e. counseling for everyone) are also ineffective. There is little empirical evidence that these approaches will lead to long-term reductions in recidivism.

Frosting the cake
Other supplemental considerations that do indeed enhance correctional program effectiveness include targeting responsivity factors, such as a lack of motivation or other barriers that can influence someone’s participation in a program. Making sure that you have well-trained and interpersonally sensitive staff, providing close monitoring of offenders whereabouts and associates, assisting with other needs that the offender might have, ensuring the program is delivered as designed through quality assurance processes, and providing structured aftercare.

If we put it all together we have the “who, what and how” of correctional intervention to cut recidivism rates, also known as “what works.”

Dr. Latessa has published over 110 works in the area of criminal justice, corrections and juvenile justice. He is co-author of seven books, including “Corrections in the Community” and “Corrections in America.” Professor Latessa has directed over 100 funded research projects, including studies of day reporting centers, juvenile justice programs, drug courts, intensive supervision programs, halfway houses and drug programs. He and his staff have also assessed over 550 correctional programs throughout the United States, and he has provided assistance and workshops in over forty states.

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