Book Review: What Works in Crime Prevention

David Weisburd, David P. Farrington, Charlotte Gill (editors) 2016

Reviewed by: Kahurangi Graham
Policy Adviser, Department of Corrections

Reviewer biography:
Kahurangi Graham joined the Strategic Policy Team as a Policy Adviser in April 2016. She has an Honours degree in Political Science from the University of Canterbury and, prior to joining the Department of Corrections, volunteered as a researcher for an NGO in Timor-Leste.

The academic debate about “what works” in crime prevention and rehabilitation has a long and often contentious history. The international context of falling crime rates, relatively static re-offending rates and rising prison populations in many OECD countries provides a complex and at times puzzling context for these enquiries.

The authors have attempted a “review of reviews”, looking at all of the most rigorous studies of criminal justice interventions, from those targeted at individuals and social groups before they enter the justice system, through to primary crime prevention, and concluding with attempts to rehabilitate those in the criminal justice system. This ambitious meta-analysis is timely in the New Zealand context because of the government’s investment approach, which requires justice sector agencies to collectively justify how their policies will improve outcomes and reduce expenditure over the longer term.

This book does not proffer any “silver bullets”. However, it is optimistic about what can be achieved when resources are targeted by risk and location, when interventions align with how offenders actually make decisions, and when rehabilitation programmes are rigorously evaluated. The authors rightly stress that conclusions about what works are only as good as the evidence base that underpins them, and several useful chapters are dedicated to how research methodologies can be strengthened.

What does the evidence tell us about crime prevention?

In recent decades, crime rates have been falling in most OECD countries. This trend has coincided with what the authors describe as a period of “tremendous vitality and innovation in crime prevention”, which in turn has focused criminological research on which of the multitude of interventions and strategies adopted over this period have been the most successful.

In general terms, the authors conclude that a pro-active approach to addressing crime – anticipating issues and engaging with communities and offenders – is more effective than reactive policing that deals with incidents as they occur.

The American SARA model (Scan, Analyse, Respond, Assess) provides a strategic framework for such an approach. Programmes like CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) illustrate how giving communities a stake in how they are policed can reduce crime. This is likely to be more of a pre-requisite for addressing crime in American cities, many of which are riven with a legitimate distrust of the police.

Smart environmental design and enhancing technological practices can also play a big part in deterring opportunistic crime. Situational crime prevention (SCP) strategies, including, for example, the use of CCTV cameras in public places, support crime resolution by motivating offenders to expend more effort to avoid detection and, if they are caught, increasing the likelihood of a successful prosecution. In support of this approach, Police are more effective at reducing crime and disorder when they target specific “hot spots” of crime, as opposed to patrolling a much wider area. New Zealand Police do this by setting strategic priorities for public areas such as bars, shopping malls and hospitals.

The research also draws attention to the recent trend towards deterring offending/re-offending through “swift, certain and fair” (SCF) sanctions. For example, Operation Ceasefire in Boston involved police notifying gang members what would happen if they were engaged in violence – this was followed by an immediate response if the warning was ignored, tempered by support in the way of rehabilitation services or other initiatives to encourage pro-social behaviour. Two other American initiatives – Project HOPE and the 24/7 Sobriety Program – work along similar lines, with short but escalating periods in jail used immediately to deal with probation violations, such as failing an alcohol or drug test.

The success of the SCF approach is contrasted with the more conventional strategy of increasing prison sentences to deter offending behaviour. The evidence appears to confirm that the severity of a sentence often means very little to a potential offender who may never even consider what the “tariff” of the crime is in the event they are prosecuted. The evidence also challenges the use of simplistic messages about the risks of illegal drugs to dissuade potential users, which have been at the centre of international drug policy for decades. Equally, Scared Straight programmes, long used to deter youth from crime through shock exposure to the prison environment, have been found to do more harm than good – showing that even well-intentioned interventions can backfire.

Nothing works? Some things work? The case for offender rehabilitation

The August 2016 issue of Practice: The New Zealand Corrections Journal (Thurston, 2016) took an in-depth look at the decades-long “what works” debate. In the 1970s Robert Martinson’s infamous paper claimed to debunk the dominant assumption that rehabilitation generally worked. This encouraged broad political consensus that “nothing worked” in offender rehabilitation, and as a result, resources were shifted to the more easily addressed areas of crime prevention and incarceration. Despite general pessimism over rehabilitation up until the 90s, the public still expected this to be a core objective of the correctional system, and practitioners strived to prove that “some things work” – even if only some of the time. What Works is an effort to establish whether there is anything left to learn from current rehabilitation practice and its crime prevention potential.

The research primarily focuses on the custodial context, and this is where the strongest evidence lies. It finds that the most effective programmes are based around cognitive-behavioural group therapy, both for general offenders and sex offenders. This corresponds with analysis recently conducted in New Zealand (Ministry of Justice, 2016). Interestingly, these programmes were not targeted at specific criminological factors, but addressed social deficits through developing skills such as anger management and interpersonal problem-solving.

Hormonal treatment for sex offenders is also found to be effective at reducing re-offending, with the caveat that because this treatment is voluntary, it is hard to identify a control group. This is contrasted with insight-oriented therapy for sex offenders, which is generally found to be ineffective. Other promising interventions include vocational training and adult basic and post-secondary educational programmes. Naturally, successful interventions depend on quality implementation – any programme has the potential to fail, no matter what the evidence base, without adequate facilitation and on-going support.

What Works is less thorough in its examination of what works in the community setting, concluding that management tools – such as electronic monitoring or intensive supervision – are ineffective at reducing re-offending, without considering them as part of a wider mix of interventions and management approaches used by probation staff. The research does look at reintegration, finding that “re-entry” programmes can reduce re-offending if they focus on repairing harm and restoring social bonds, or offer practical assistance to offenders (such as employment programmes that offer work placement, rather than job training). Opportunities such as temporary release could also have a positive effect on re-offending and offenders’ ability to reintegrate into society. These conclusions provide little more than a rule of thumb for what works. Evaluations of domestic programmes, such as Corrections’ Out of Gate reintegration service, are more illustrative of what success looks like in practice.

The research also highlights the link between re-offending and drug misuse, but found that successful interventions generally treat addiction as a health rather than a criminogenic issue. Naltrexone treatment (which blocks the effects of opioids such as heroin) and prison therapeutic communities (which provide support between abstinence and recovery) were the most successful interventions, both in terms of treatment and crime reduction. Interestingly, reviews of supervision and surveillance programmes such as drug testing showed mixed results – some were effective, some were not, and some even favoured the comparison group – suggesting that the intervention itself may be harmful if other factors are at play. For instance, people who are constantly monitored may simply be more likely to be caught than those who are not.

Where to from here?

The authors conclude their study with several chapters on the importance of research methodologies to effective interventions.

There have been big strides forward with the research around crime prevention and rehabilitation, sustained by institutions such as the Cochrane and Campbell collaborations. Yet the authors find that there are still methodological gaps and challenges that practitioners need to address. At the highest level, qualitative and primary research could be strengthened to provide a more robust pool of resources to draw from. It is also important to acknowledge that research techniques can be prone to biases and flaws, including how findings are reported and the treatment of sample groups. There could also be more investigation into the economic impact of interventions, which would give practitioners more guidance towards where they could best invest.

This last point is particularly important in the context of an increasing focus on investment-thinking in political decision-making. Policy advisers are rightly being asked to justify expenditure on crime prevention, rehabilitation programmes and other interventions in terms of their ability to minimise future liabilities. Research of the kind presented in this latest contribution to the What Works? literature is essential to meeting this challenge.


Campbell Collaboration (2016).

Cochrane Collaboration (2016).

Ministry of Justice (2016). Evidence Brief: Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy Retrieved September, 2016 from

Thurston, J. (2016). “What works: a new model of public service delivery?”. Practice: The New Zealand Corrections Journal, 4(1), pp.65-68.