Just How Effective Is Correctional Treatment at Reducing Re-Offending?

Article excerpt

This paper reviews the recent history and examines the present state of New Zealand correctional interventions. The focus is specifically on those interventions, programmes, or treatments that aim to reduce re-offending. Beginning in the 'nothing works' era of the 1970's, this paper reviews the international development of effective correctional interventions, and summarises the evaluation of these programmes in terms of published meta-analyses. The development, implementation and evaluation of a number of New Zealand treatment programmes are then discussed. Recidivism outcome measures from these New Zealand programmes are consistent with international benchmarks in terms of their ability to reduce re-offending. There is also a growing body of evidence that the effectiveness of these programmes can be further enhanced through particular attention to established principles of programme best practice, including providing culturally relevant and appropriate interventions to Maori offenders. A number of suggestions for increasing the effectiveness of correctional programming are made.

Historical Background: The What Works? Debate

Over the course of the 20th century the practice of penology has witnessed a fierce struggle between proponents of punishment and proponents of rehabilitation (Andrews & Bonta, 1998; Cullen & Gendreau, 1989; Hollin, 1992). These conflicting ideals reached a crescendo during the 1970's in what subsequently became known as the 'nothing works / what works' debate. Prior to the 1970's, rehabilitation--in the form of human service treatment--was widely accepted as a legitimate goal of correctional operations (Hollin, 2000). However the 1970's saw a dramatic shift in the power balance between the competing goals of rehabilitation and punishment (Andrews & Bonta, 1998; Bonta, 1997; Cullen & Gendreau, 1989). Faced with rising crime rates and increasing prison crowding there was general public and professional disillusionment about the effectiveness of offender rehabilitation programmes (Cullen, Fischer & Applegate, 2000).

The backlash against rehabilitation was amplified by the influential review of Martinson (1974) whose name became synonymous with the 'nothing works' doctrine. This title came from the often cited article by Martinson (1974: 'What Works?--Questions and Answers about Prison Reform'). This paper is commonly credited with expediting the demise of human service and the ideals of rehabilitation (Andrews & Bonta, 1998; Cullen & Gendreau, 1989). Martinson (1974) reviewed 231 studies of prison rehabilitative programmes. On the basis of his analysis he concluded that offender treatment was largely ineffective. For example, "...education...or psychotherapy at its best, cannot overcome, or even appreciably reduce, the powerful tendency for offenders to continue in criminal behaviour" (p.49). Lipton, Martinson and Wilks' (1975) reanalysed the same reviews as Martinson. They similarly noted that firstly, research done up to that point was methodologically weak, and secondly, there was no evidence that any treatment could be relied upon to consistently reduce recidivism (see also Brody, 1976). These arguments were not only favourably received by the dominant mainstream criminology scholars, but they were also consistent with the right-wing political ideologies of the 1970's and 1980's, such as those espoused by the Thatcher and Reagan governments in the United Kingdom and United States of America respectively (Hollin, 2000).

The pessimistic rhetoric of the 'nothing works' doctrine obviously had serious implications for the willingness of correctional authorities to invest resources in rehabilitative efforts. Depending on the chosen ideology, the apparent futility of correctional rehabilitation was a perfect excuse for harsher penalties, 'just desserts' or political revolution (Hollin, 2000). The 1970's and 1980's thus saw government funding shift away from rehabilitation into primary crime prevention (e. …