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Collaborative programs that provided health and social services to people in frequent trouble with the law had a very powerful positive effect in British Columbia, reducing recidivism by more than 40%, according to research by a team at Simon Fraser University.

Their study addressed one of the vexing questions in criminal justice, around what to do about people who are in frequent trouble with the law over an extended time– so-called ‘prolific offenders’.   It has long been known that a relatively small number of people account for a high proportion of all crimes.  (John Howard Canada prefers to avoid words such as ‘offenders’ which tend to imply that behaviour is inherent in the nature of people rather than being primarily a result of life history and circumstances, and thus subject to change.)

A small number of people account for a lot of crimes

To illustrate how dramatic the problems can be for some people, a Swedish study found that more than 60% of violent crimes were committed by 1% of the population .  A study by Public Safety Canada  of 386 youth offenders with multiple charges found that over 15 years they accounted for 7200 criminal charges and 4700 court appearances – more than 18 charges and 12 court appearances each – although that study also found that for most of the group involvement in crime dropped off dramatically as they got older.  Obviously people who commit or are charged with multiple crimes create very large costs both to the justice system and to society generally.

Repeated arrests and punishment of the same people appears to have little effect on their subsequent behaviour, reinforcing the oft-stated view that ‘tough on crime’ strategies are generally ineffective – and expensive.  An alternative strategy to try to reduce repeated criminal behaviour, which has been tried in several settings mentioned in this article, involves cooperation between the criminal justice system and various health and social service agencies.  This approach was used in six British Columbia communities in this study.  The idea was to match services more closely to the specific needs of each person – a model called the ‘Risk, Needs, Responsivity’ (RNR) approach.

Helping people has low costs

Each community had a local team drawn from a wide variety of agencies: police, probation, crown counsel, psychiatry, social assistance, child and family services and housing.  The teams would try to provide appropriate services to each person referred by the justice system.  Teams had the flexibility to tailor their services to each community and to add additional team members. The only additional resources provided were for coordinators for each community, so the costs of this project were quite modest. In total about 200 people received services over about two years.  More than 90% were male and about a quarter were Aboriginal.  The participants had averaged 16 criminal offenses per person in the five years prior to the program, mostly property crimes and breaches of parole or probation.

Good outcomes from approach

Outcomes included number of offenses, contact with police and time in custody.  All of these measures dropped significantly for those involved in the project.  The number of offenses dropped by 40%, and the number of violent offenses dropped by 2/3 in the two years after joining the program.  In other words, these people did not stop committing crimes altogether, but the number and severity of crimes they committed dropped substantially.  At the same time, the participants used more medical services and drew more social assistance benefits – though social assistance costs were still quite modest.  Prior to the program, participants had used fewer medical services than the average BC resident, even though many of them had addictions or other serious medical problems.

While the results must be treated with caution given the relatively small group and the lack of a proper control group, they still suggest that providing people in trouble with more support can be an effective, and cost-effective way to reduce crime.


Rezansoff, S., Moniruzzaman, A., & Somers, J. (2012)  Prolific and Priority Offenders in British Columbia, Canada: A PreliminaryAnalysis of Recidivism.  International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences (IJCJS) – December 2012. Vol. 7 (2): 562–574




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