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The Dubious Track Record of Offender Rehabilitation
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 02/12/2018

Inmateclass From The Crime Report

“….President Trump cited prisoner reentry in his State of the Union address [last] Tuesday, but it was only a one-line mention. This year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance,” the president said. Conservative reform advocates made much out of that one sentence.”

“Mark Holden of Koch Industries said Trump’s remark was “very encouraging and we look forward to continuing to work with the White House, the administration, members of Congress and states to make this vision a reality nationwide,” reports Reason.”

“We are incredibly pleased that President Trump took time this evening to recognize the importance of reforming our corrections policies, said Brooke Rollins, President and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.”

“Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, called Trump’s comment “a milestone in the growing conservative movement to apply conservative principles to our justice system. Our reforms reflect our values of accountability for both offenders as well as government agencies, support for crime victims, treating each person with dignity and offering a second chance.” The Crime Report.

My question, do offender rehabilitation programs reduce recidivism?

Do Offender Programs Work?

I support programs for offenders. Most in the criminological community support programs. I have repeatedly asked if society wants people coming out of prison to be free of mental health and substance abuse issues. Who would say no to that?

But what if the CDC advocated an initiative that produced marginal results? What if the American Medical Association recommended a cure for cancer where the overwhelming number involved were not assisted or cured? The media and public would be in a sustained uproar over recommendations produce dubious track results.

But discontent disappears when it comes to offender rehabilitation programs.

There are dozens of national criminological or advocacy associations pleading for treatment programs, and I understand why. They are humanistic efforts to assist people and to reduce crime and the fiscal costs involved with incarceration.

If not programs, what options do we have? The answer beyond sentencing reform is none.

It’s either incarceration or programs or sentencing reform and all have less than stellar results. At least with incarceration, we know that while there, he’s not going to inflict additional harm on society. The overwhelming majority are incarcerated for violent crimes or multi-repeat felonies or both per federal data.

What We Need

As long as we are are going to unquestionably advocate for programs while not being concerned about the results, we will continue to have dismal outcomes.

Most advocates don’t care (too strong?) if the released offender commits additional crime; they believe that it’s the RIGHT thing to do. They will suggest that recidivism is just one of the many things we should be measuring.

So if your daughter is sexually assaulted or your brother robbed and psychologically scarred for life or if your neighbor gets burglarized and moves; it’s all OK because the offender is employed or using fewer drugs or he is now a good father?

If we are going to go down this path, we need to have a national conference and a series of extremely rigorous studies as to why the results to date have been so disappointing. We need a full understanding of offender behavior, motivations and what it will take to get him not to be a burden to society.

We need to focus on mental health and clinical issues that characterize the bulk of the correctional population. If we were truly brave we would also focus on why so many are coming into the correctional population with mental health issues, Crime in America-Mental Health.

We need a research initiative similar to cancer. It should be a national priority.

What I write will anger many; the advocacy of programs is so ingrained in our collective criminological psyche that the mere suggestion that they are not working effectively will cause heads to spin.

I’m not suggesting that we stop supporting programs; I’m suggesting that we need to dramatically improve their components and delivery to get better than marginal results.

By the way, why does the data show that programs for offenders are so underfunded? It’s because that most who fund them do not believe they work. It’s just that simple.

The Data

But with new data from the Department of Justice regarding a signature program, it seems that offender efforts are on life support. The two premier programs from the federal government have been less than successful.

Second Chance Evaluation

An Evaluation Of Seven Second Chance Act Adult Demonstration Programs: Impact Findings At 18 Months, describes the impacts of seven programs that were awarded grants under the Second Chance Act to reduce recidivism by addressing the challenges faced by adults after incarceration.

The summation of findings (with minor edits for brevity) is not encouraging:

“The study measured recidivism as involvement with the criminal justice system in the 18 months after that led to re-arrest, reconviction, or re-incarceration. As of 18 months after random assignment, increased access to services for participants did not lead to increased desistance.”

“Whether recidivism was measured using survey or administrative data, those in the program group were not less likely than those in the control group to be re-arrested, reconvicted, or re-incarcerated; their time to re-arrest or reincarceration was no shorter; and they did not have fewer total days incarcerated (including time in both prisons and jails).”

“There is some evidence that those in the program group were somewhat more likely to be convicted of a new crime or have probation or parole revoked…” see Second Chance Act.

I understand that some will imply that treatment efforts didn’t go far enough to address multiple symptoms, and it’s only seven programs at 18 months, but it’s not just this research. Collectively, the data over time indicate that programs simply don’t work for the mast majority of offenders.

Additional Data:

The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) was the federal government’s other signature effort using evidence-based tactics and programs to reduce recidivism. It showed few (if any) positive results.

Go to the federal government’s Crime Solutions.Gov database and plug in “recidivism.” There are few prison or parole and probation efforts marked as “effective,” see https://www.crimesolutions.gov/.

Per a survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, money for treatment for probation caseloads is almost nonexistent. It was 1 percent in 2005. It was 1 percent in 2015. That’s not to say that some probationers don’t get treatment, but if they do, it comes from external sources, see Crime in America-Probation.

I cannot remember any US Department of Justice data indicating that programs for offenders in prison or parole and probation that rose above ten percent. Most offered results much less than ten percent in recidivism.

When programs are offered to offenders, some work, some don’t and some make things worse. When they do work, the results are generally small, see Crime in America-Nothing Works Well.

There is no indication that the massive caseload ratios of parole and probation agents have been reduced thus making it impossible to be effective. 100-200 offenders to every parole and probation agent ratios are not unusual.

I am unaware of any data stating that the use of risk instruments to select the “real” threats to public safety is any better than flipping a coin. Risk instruments are the heart and soul of caseload management. Most media reports on offender assessment are negative, see Christian Science Monitor.

If 77 percent of offenders released from prison are rearrested, and we all understand that this is an undercount due to underreporting of crimes, and two out of every five reported crimes are solved, and a significant number are not prosecuted, then how are we to evaluate claims of reduced recidivism? See Crime in America-Rearrests.

Even drug and other specialty courts have inconsistent records, see Crime in America-Drug Courts.

Recidivism-Most Released From Prison Go Back to Prison

The most common understanding of recidivism is based on data from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, stating that two-thirds (68 percent) of prisoners released were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.

It can be as high as 84 percent rearrested, see Crime in America-Recidivism. I have seen state data approaching 90 percent rearrested.

Within 3 years of release, 49.7% of inmates either had an arrest that resulted in a conviction with a disposition of a prison sentence or were returned to prison without a new conviction because they violated a technical condition of their release; as did 55.1% of inmates within 5 years of release, see Crime in America-Recidivism.

Thus when jurisdictions claim massive reductions in recidivism, we tend to compare their claims to this (and other) data and shake our heads.


There is much more I could bring to the table, like the additional data offered by Crime Soultions.Gov from the Department of Justice indicating that most rehabilitation programs aren’t rated as effective, see Crime in America.

As stated in the beginning, I reassert my support for programs for offenders. We must have something beyond incarceration to manage the offender population. Our collective values call for improvements.

Sentencing reform will never dip into the violent and multi-repeat felon categories (the vast majority of the prison population). There are other aspects of sentencing reform that I support (i.e., the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, specialty courts, keeping young non-violent offenders out of the system), but in this article, we are addressing serious criminality.

There needs to be an immediate call for a national conference on programs for offenders to examine why the results are so disappointing. We need to do better. Cancer results were small in the past but we kept trying, and data now indicate some improvement (i.e., the remarkable improvement in deaths from breast cancer).

But until we figure out why programs for offenders have questionable value, we need to be skeptical of those claiming success.

If we support offender rehabilitation, we need to question current results. We need to demand better answers. If we don’t, incarceration will be our only answer.

Reformers call for a greater reliance on evidence-based efforts yet ignore the collective results of programs or cherry pick data. We are still waiting for evidence that risk instruments work.

We have advocated for programs for decades. Governors insist that they want to reduce correctional costs. Then why do a tiny percent of offenders have access to programs?

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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