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Criminal Rehabilitation Programs - Some Work - Most Don’t
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 05/11/2020

Courtroom a There are endless numbers of advocates and criminologists who insist that all offender rehabilitation programs substantially reduce recidivism (i.e., new crimes, convictions, and reincarcerations). Are they correct?

Crime Solutions.Gov is one of the best ideas of the US Department of Justice. It was started by Laurie Robinson, the former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs (OJP). We now have a wide array of evaluations as to crime and justice programs that guide us as to the worthiness of possible interventions.

Crime Solutions.Gov recently offered an overview of data titled Rehabilitation Programs for Adult Offenders stating that some work, and some don’t (see bottom of this article for a summation).

As to programs, I have previously said, based principally on US Department of Justice funded research, that most do not reduce recidivism or the percentage difference between the experimental and control groups is ten percent or less; hardly a resounding success story.

Per the author whose work formed the basis of the Crime Solutions article, I have to change my assessment somewhat. Mark W Lipsey, Ph.D. Peabody College of Education and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, found a “20% reduction in the recidivism rate. This finding is consistent with prior meta-analyses, though the scope of the current work provides especially convincing support,” National Institute Of Justice.

Quote From Dr. Lipsey

Per Dr. Lipsey’s response to my inquiries: “The average intervention effect reported is approximately equivalent to a 20% reduction in recidivism from a 50% recidivism rate for control groups without the interventions investigated. This average refers to the overall mean across all the studies and the different kinds of programs, not just those that showed statistically significant mean effects. There are instances of recidivism effects well above and well below this average.”

See additional notes from Dr. Lipsey at the bottom of the article.

Most Recipients of Programs Recidivatate

While a twenty percent reduction is progress and something to build on, it still means that the vast majority of program participants return to the justice system through arrest, prosecution or incarceration.

Dr. Lipsey’s assumption of a 50 percent recidivism rate is lower than established data, “The most common understanding of recidivism is based state 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.”

“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,” Offender Recidivism.

But his assumption of a fifty percent recidivism rate is reasonable for research purposes.

Per Dr. Lipsey’s quote, not all programs that produced a positive result were statistically significant (whether a result is likely due to chance or to some factor of interest.)

Some Programs Work - Some Don’t

“There were no statistically significant reductions in recidivism found for other types of rehabilitation programs such as:
  • work-related programs,
  • academic programs,
  • supportive residential programs,
  • intensive supervision (such as reduced probation or parole caseloads),
  • multimodal/mixed treatments (such as individual case management),
  • and restorative interventions.”
“Programs that included:
  • group work (structured via protocol or psychoeducational content),
  • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or CBT-like components,
  • counseling,
  • or that used drug court or other specialized court models
were associated with a statistically significant reduction in recidivism.”

Statistical Significance Vs Significant Impact

It’s a matter of the degree of success. There is a difference between a statistically significant decrease and an impact large enough that creates enthusiasm among state legislators and governors or the federal Bureau of Prisons or Congress to pump money into rehabilitation efforts.

Specialty courts are an example. Even when most participants are at the lower end of a risk assessment scale, they still have inconsistent records and small reductions in recidivism, Drug Courts.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (something that works per Dr. Lipsey’s data) is a part of many of the programs listed below that offered little to no impact.

On the other hand, people providing offenders with services have insisted for years that you have to stabilize them before other interventions are possible. So many offenders come from neglected, abused, and traumatized backgrounds that it seems almost impossible to make headway without cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or CBT-like components.

Thus a twenty percent reduction in recidivism for people with extremely troubled backgrounds may be more of a success than many realize.

Lack Of Support for Rehabilitation Programs

The data seems consistent, only a small percentage of offenders in jails or prisons or parole and probation programs have access to well-designed and supported, individually based programs. Regardless of criteria, most do not have access to any programs at all beyond those run by clergy or volunteers (AA-NA).

In a day and age where governors are complaining that “corrections” takes way too much of state budgets, if programs were as effective as advocates make them out to be, you would think that state executives would be funding anything that reduces the fiscal or criminological impact.

Why are programs so underfunded? Because most believe that they either don’t work or that the impacts, regardless as to the statistical significance, are not large enough to be worthy of consideration. The second reason is that the rate of return to the justice system per new arrests and incarcerations is very high, Recidivism.

Why Correctional Programs Are Underfunded

Some of us believe that reductions in recidivism are irrelevant to some degree, discredited programs such as work-related or academic or restorative justice or case management efforts should be available to every inmate or offender based purely on humanistic grounds. Getting a GED and becoming a bricklayer may have the desired impact over time; people change based on age and other (mostly family-related) factors.

Programs also offer a sense of sanity within correctional facilities. They make prisons safer for everyone. They provide a sense of hope to offenders. For these reasons alone, programs should be considered. This is more important to institutional and employee safety than most realize.

But advocates insist that all programs have the desired impact and make society safer when they should admit that the track record for many efforts is dismal. Promising much and delivering little is why correctional rehabilitation is so underfunded.

The majority of offenders after programs recidivate. There is no compassion in failure. There is no higher moral authority in a small reduction in recidivism.

We need a national commission to study why results are so bad for so many programs. It should be on par with cancer research. There should be hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and private funding and an insistence that we need to figure out what works, what works well and implement and evaluate interventions on a grand scale.

Pure advocacy for all programs hurts our ability to make things better. There are both criminologists and advocates who insist in the strongest possible terms that college programs in prisons will change the world. It’s the same for education and vocational programs. Previous Rehabilitation Program Data

There are a variety of articles on this site providing summations of program evaluations. Some are below.

The two premier programs from the federal government have been less than successful.

Second Chance Evaluations

An Evaluation Of Seven Second Chance Act Adult Demonstration Programs: Impact Findings At 30 Months, the program designed to reduce recidivism and improve employment rates through reentry services for individuals who have a moderate-to-high risk for reoffending. The program is rated “no effects.” At the 30-month follow up, there were no statistically significant differences in rearrest, reconviction, reincarceration, or employment rates between program participants and control group members (link and summation below).

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 rearrested, reconvicted, or re-incarcerated; their time to re-arrest or reincarceration was no shorter; 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.

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 adult prison or parole and probation efforts marked as “effective,” see Crime Solutions.

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.

There is no indication that the massive caseload ratios of parole and probation agents have been reduced thus making it impossible to be effective. 100-150 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.

Even drug and other specialty courts have inconsistent records, see Drug Courts.

Employment and education programs don’t work, Employment.

Dedicated veteran prison housing units, however, indicate some success, National Institute of Justice.


There are endless reasons to support programs in prisons, jails or parole and probation. But the most important question is impact as to a return to the justice system.

We must do better as to figuring out the best modalities. We need a massive effort of evaluations. There is a possibility of protecting many citizens from criminal victimization and saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Why this isn’t a top priority for the country is confounding and is probably based on the over-promises of the past as to effectiveness.

Advocates will kill programs faster than a budget analysis every time.

But Dr. Lipsey’s team is searching for clues as to effectiveness. They state:

“A primary objective of this project is to identify participant and program factors strongly enough related to recidivism effects (and possibly other outcomes) to provide the basis for practice guidelines for interventions with adult offenders. Several findings from the analyses reported here provide a step in that direction.”

“For example, the greater benefits of programming while offenders are in the community under probation or parole supervision relative to treatment provided in residential facilities guides attention to the importance of community-based support.”

“Further, among the broad intervention approaches, cognitive-behavioral, structured group, counseling, and drug court programs stand out as especially effective. The stronger effects found when the evaluator was more involved in service delivery and for more mature programs are also notable. These variables are most likely proxies for higher quality program implementation.”

Reprinted with permission from https://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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