When Programs "Don't Work" with Everyone: Planning for Differences among Correctional Clients

By Van Voorhis, Patricia; Spencer, Kimberly | Corrections Today, February 1999 | Go to article overview

When Programs "Don't Work" with Everyone: Planning for Differences among Correctional Clients


Van Voorhis, Patricia, Spencer, Kimberly, Corrections Today


"It's not that we haven't found effective correctional interventions, it's that we haven't found interventions that work with all of our clients all of the time." It's a frustrating and real observation made by researchers, practitioners and policy-makers that is well-grounded in correctional research. Indeed, 30 years of research on correctional clients provides us with three fairly consistent observations: a) there are no panaceas that work with all offenders or even the majority of offenders within a single program,(1) b) offenders respond differentially to correctional treatment strategies(2) and c) offenders evidence differential adjustments to correctional environments.(3)

The need to accommodate important differences among clients is not a new idea. In the 1960s and 1970s, programs within the California Youth Authority and elsewhere used personality-based classification models to "match" clients to interventions. Evaluators of such applications of "differential treatment" found they enhanced program effectiveness. More recently, "differential treatment" has become subsumed under the Responsivity Principle,(4) which is receiving growing attention in corrections. The responsivity principle suggests that clients should be assigned to those interventions that are most able to meet their needs and styles of learning.(5) The California programs classified delinquents according to personality types, but personality is not the only individual characteristic that should be considered in program assignments; intellectual functioning, maturity, stages of change, sex and ethnicity also are considered to be relevant to client responsivity.

Effective application of the responsivity principle requires sound methods of assessment of responsivity traits such as those listed above. However, such assessments are viewed as secondary to risk assessment systems. They are used as "internal classifications" - the classification system applied by correctional facilities once offenders are in their care - recognizing that even when groups are separated according to risk, they are still highly heterogeneous.

The personality-based or psychological classification systems have the longest history of systematic practice in corrections. Examples of such systems include: a) Client Management Classification (CMC)(6), b) I-level,(7) c) Megargee MMPI-based Prison Typology(8) and d) Quay Behavioral Categories.

The following proposes a personality-based model for adult male offenders. This model represents a simplified version of personality-based classification models. It suggests five offender types and puts forward treatment implications for each. The types are common to each of the personality systems listed above. Although all but the CMC and the Quay behavioral typology enumerate more than five types, recent research on adult, male, prison inmates suggests that it is possible to simplify them and still make meaningful distinctions among offenders. This requires collapsing types when using the systems that typically recommend nine or more types. While this has some support in the corrections literature, these suggestions are still being tested in a number of studies currently under way at the University of Cincinnati.

The purpose of proposing these five types and their treatment recommendations is to: a) aid correctional practitioners in making meaningful distinctions among clients in their daily interactions, b) assist in the process of matching offenders to meaningful treatment programs and c) offer a responsivity-based classification methodology that is not overly complex. In today's correctional environment, a classification system overburdened with complex assessment methods and numerous types with complicated distinctions is not likely to be a realistic option for most agencies.

This article also makes treatment recommendations for each type. Readers are cautioned, however, that differential treatment/responsivity is not widely practiced or researched in correctional practice. …

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