What Works in Corrections

Crime in America.Net

Updated spring of 2011.

Gentlereaders: Please see another update from our previous “What Works in Corrections” where we attempt to provide an overview of evidence-based corrections programs.

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:

A major study of recidivism for most states in the country: http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/initiatives_detail.aspx?initiativeID=85899358500

Drug Courts: http://crimeinamerica.net/2010/03/24/do-drug-courts-work-crime-news-crime-in-america-net/

Drug Courts: Successful program in New Jersey:http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/pressrel/Drug%20Court%20Report%20v1%20Final.pdf

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/

Jobs for Offenders (US Department of Labor): http://crimeinamerica.net/2010/05/12/jobs-for-offenders-works-to-reduce-crime-crime-in-america-net/

Jobs for Offenders (lots of examples of successful programs): http://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/Final_EO_Master_Complete.pdf

Jobs for offenders (great data on what works): http://crimeinamerica.net/2011/02/09/employment-after-prison-cuts-crime/

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/

Mental Health Courts (considerable decreases in recidivism compared to comparison groups): http://pn.psychiatryonline.org/content/45/12/12.1.full

Properly classifying high risk offenders and directing programs to this group: http://crimeinamerica.net/2010/10/25/is-criminal-history-related-to-future-criminality/

Properly classifying high risk offenders and adding programs. Shows long range reductions in recidivism: http://crimeinamerica.net/2011/02/07/prison-programs-can-reduce-crime/

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. 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 suggesting that recidivism rates increased.  The concept of evidence-based corrections is more complex than many suggest.

Sentencing Project report on 99 jurisdictions measuring recidivism:

The Sentencing Project has done all who are interested in the results of offender based recidivism studies a great favor through a report at http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_StateRecidivismFinalPaginated.pdf. The report documents the results of state and local efforts to measure recidivism. It drawls no conclusions about results. Our attempt to summarize the findings and offer a separate post was frustrated by the complexity of results and lack of knowledge as to research methods. Some seem to indicate success while others do not. Never-the-less, The Sentencing Project offers a starting point for a broader analysis. The Office of Justice Programs of the US Department of Justice and the Urban Institute are also looking at the totality of evidence as to the results of recidivism studies

Keeping results in perspective:

Recidivism results for most of the better studies are often modest, 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 suggest 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:

Most 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  these efforts should 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.

Programs for offenders cut:

Many rehabilitation efforts are being cut or eliminated by states because of their ongoing budget problems. States are cutting positions for police officers and other members of the criminal justice system, so it was inevitable that efforts to assist offenders would also be reduced.

Final point

The US Department of Justice is leading a new charge for evidence-based programs and insisting on better studies and a more complete examination of the data.

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