Updated August, 2010.
This article summarizes data as to the effectiveness of correctional programs regarding reductions in recidivism (returns to the criminal justice system via arrest, prosecution or incarceration). Note that most states define recidivism as a return to incarceration.
The research focuses on programs giving offenders skills they need to become productive citizens.
For our students and requesters, we placed relevant studies shown to reduce crime and/or recidivism under the “What Works for Corrections” category of Crime in America.Net (http://crimeinamerica.net/category/what-works-corrections/). In this section, we include:
An overview of correctional research based on methodologically sound (correctly done) data at: http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/06-10-1201.pdf. This study was conducted in 2006. Please see page 9 for the summary. The research from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy is considered the best overview of correctional effectiveness. Since that time, new and significant research projects have appeared and are listed below:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: http://crimeinamerica.net/2010/03/18/20-year-prison-study%e2%80%94treatment-works-crime-statistics/
Probation’s Project Hope: http://crimeinamerica.net/2009/11/07/swift-and-certain-hawaiis-probation-experiment/
Reentry in San Diego–It’s only six months of data but a well done report: http://crimeinamerica.net/2010/08/03/successful-offender-reentry-program-in-san-diego/
Substance Abuse Treatment Works in the Minnesota Department of Corrections: http://crimeinamerica.net/2010/08/11/successful-prison-based-substance-abuse-treatment/
Mental Health Courts: http://crimeinamerica.net/2010/08/17/mental-health-courts-lower-recidivism/
Additional studies will be added in the future.
The criminological community loves to argue methodology and the data above still leaves room for improvement, especially the Department of Labor study on employment.
But the programs presented constitute some of the best examples of correctional research, thought and opinion.
Additional Programs Claiming Success
There are hundreds of additional correctional programs claiming an impact on recidivism, but some may reach conclusions based on questionable methods. We’ve seen programs claim 50 percent reductions in recidivism only to revise findings significantly at a later date (the state-wide program making the claim lost most of its funding).
That said, it’s not uncommon to read almost daily newspaper accounts of reentry programs claiming to keep offenders from returning to the criminal justice system.
Note that not all offender-based programs claim success and there are several that suggest that recidivism rates increased.
Keeping Results in Perspective
Recidivism results for most of the better studies are often small, ranging from 10 to 20 percent; but it’s a down payment on the knowledge we need to improve operations and results.
A 10 to 20 percent reduction in recidivism for the 730,000 offenders released from American prisons each year can have a significant impact on crime and save states hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred criminal justice and incarceration costs.
Many in corrections believe that we are in our infancy as to “what works” or “evidence-based” approaches. Some state that we have approximately 30 percent of what we need to know to be truly effective.
We are a long way from the precision we need to be truly effective. But the programs above offer some hope that interventions can have an impact.
Programs are Small
The final point is that rehabilitative efforts in America and most countries are quite small as to the number of offenders they service. Many if not most of us within the justice system would like to see everyone in prison getting the substance abuse, mental health, educational and vocational assistance inmates need, and that these efforts continue seamlessly upon release in the community.
But the reality is that programs are serving small percentages of offenders in most states. We need to do a better job convincing lawmakers and citizens that their tax dollars are well spent on offender-based programs.