Why do we send people to jail?  Although jail is taken for granted as a punishment for many crimes, people often don’t think much beyond that.  Someone does something wrong, the response is punishment, and the common punishment is time in jail.  However, as Professor Frances Cullen points out in a recent review, once people are jailed, “a critical question will persist: What should correctional agencies do with those they lock up or supervise in the community?”

Importance of rehabilitation

The usual answer to this question is around some kind of rehabilitation.  Even for those who are strong advocates of severe punishment, it is presumably desirable also to make further crime less likely through some kind of change in people while they are in jail.  This goal is especially important since even in the harshest systems virtually everyone who is jailed will be released at some point.  Now, Cullen tells us, we have good evidence that rehabilitation, if well designed and implemented, can be very effective.

Using the right programs

The two qualifications – well designed and well implemented – are critically important.  Many programs designed to be rehabilitative do not show good results, and may even create more harm than good.  Real and positive change can only occur when “the causes underlying an individuals’ criminality are identified and then are prescribed the appropriate treatment.”  This means, just as in medicine or any other human service, individual attention to each person’s situation is vital.

Determining what kinds of treatments work for what kinds of people requires evidence which comes from research, just as it does in medicine.  This work is not easy.  In every field, including criminal rehabilitation, many treatments are advocated, but many of them don’t actually work, even when they seem very logical on the face of it.  For example, there was a lot of enthusiasm for ‘scared straight’ programs or tough ‘boot camps’, but after careful evaluation researchers found that these programs actually led to more criminal behaviour, not less.   This leads to one of Cullen’s direct recommendations: “Do not use punishment to change behavior”. Surprisingly, research shows that even regular meetings between those convicted of a crime and their parole or probation officers do not lead to better outcome unless these meetings are carefully structured to solve problems and build skills, which is not common practice in Canada today.

Cullen has spent many years reviewing a very large number of research studies and evaluations.  Based on this he concludes that punitive interventions, which are based on deterrence or surveillance, are ineffective, whereas interventions that are therapeutic and “emphasize a human service approach” are “most likely to achieve substantial reductions in recidivism”.

The RNR model

One of the models with the most supporting evidence was developed in Canada – the RNR (Risk, Needs, Responsivity) model.  Among the main features of this model are:

  • People who already have a low risk of re-offending should not be required to participate in further treatment, nor should they be jailed.
  • Rehabilitation or treatment should focus on ‘dynamic’ factors which support a better way of life and can actually be changed, such as attitudes, social networks, education, or employment.
  • The programs used should have solid evidence showing that they can make a positive difference. So far, among the most useful interventions are those that use some form of cognitive-behavioural therapy, which focuses on the relationships between what we think and how we act and is widely used by psychologists and psychiatrists in many fields.
  • All programs should embody respect for the person in the program, and should be provided in ways that are respectful, humane, and ethical.

The Correctional Service of Canada has adopted in all federal prisons a program model called “Good Lives”, which builds on the RNR approach.  While promising, Cullen notes that this program has not yet been studied enough to have good evidence on its results.  One hopes that CSC is doing or supporting such evaluations.

Effective implementation

However the right policies and programs are not enough.  As Cullen reports, even the best policy or program can be totally undermined by poor implementation.  In jails, things like lockdowns or lack of trained staff or budget limits regularly interfere with the appropriate delivery of programs.  Most provincial jails in Canada offer very little programming, while both the Auditor General and Correctional Investigator have commented on the lack of availability of programs in federal prisons.

Ceremonies of redemption

Finally, Cullen makes an interesting and important point about the need for public ceremonies or recognition of rehabilitation.  Being charged criminally, convicted and sentenced are often highly public acts with a great deal of media reporting, while the steps a person may take towards rehabilitation do not have a public aspect.  Even an official pardon is largely a private matter.  Cullen suggests that it could go some way towards offsetting the many negative effects of a criminal record, even many years later, if society provided “the possibility of full legal redemption” – some kind of formal ceremony that would welcome a person back into the community after certain steps, such as participating in a program or community service, and a period of time that is crime-free.  “Rehabilitation thus should be seen not only as an end in and of itself but as a means for achieving redemption…”

The full article: Cullen, Frances (2017).  Correctional rehabilitation.  In Erik Luna, editor, ‘Reforming Criminal Justice’, Volume 4, ‘Punishment, Incarceration and Release’, pages 235-260. Phoenix, Arizona: Academy for Justice.  This entire set of four books can be downloaded at no cost from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University at http://academyforjustice.org/.




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