Future developments

  1. So far this paper has addressed 'broad brush' issues — which offenders should be offered psychological treatment; is it effective, and more or less so in institutional and community settings; is there a cost difference in delivering treatment to different settings?

    The answers to these questions are important first steps in deciding how to use psychological treatment resources. This paper has suggested some answers which are a sound basis for making such decisions. But many gaps in existing knowledge remain. Areas in need of further development are discussed below under the headings Reconvictions, and, Treatment effectiveness. Within these areas discussion is confined to potentially significant developments, more detailed discussion being beyond the scope of this paper.

  2. Reconvictions

    Current reconviction predictions are stated as probabilities. Probability ratings are most useful at their extremes; very high or low probabilities of reconviction are almost enough information alone for deciding whether or not to provide psychological treatment. (Exceptions are discussed above eg. where there is a low probability but the offence is likely to be serious.) The closer probabilities come to 50 percent, the more difficult the decision about providing or withholding treatment.

    There is a need to discover offender characteristics allowing those from middle probabilities to be reclassified to low or high probabilities. The department’s Integrated Offender Management System has the potential to provide offender information that will increase prediction accuracy, but the closer probabilities get to 50 percent, the more likely is the operation of complex psychological variables that will determine whether or not the person re-offends. A most useful contribution the Psychological Service can make is an effort to identify these variables and separate out middle into high or low probabilities.

    A further difficulty is that some serious offences have quite low reconviction rates, so few people committing such crimes will repeat them. Existing prediction techniques cannot accurately identify who these people are. Because the consequences of these offences are so socially, personally and economically serious, treatment is offered to all such offenders, and many are treated who do not need it in terms  of reconviction probability. There is a need to discover offender characteristics that will identify those most likely to repeat these offences, and confine treatment to them.

    Information generated by the Integrated Offender Management System may eventually identify high-risk people in these low probability groups. It is likely that complex psychological variables and their interactions will have to be taken into account, and this is another area the Psychological Service is well-placed to investigate.

  3. Treatment effectiveness

    Because of attacks in the 1970s and early 1980s on the credibility of offender rehabilitation programmes, programme proponents  amassed many studies demonstrating effectiveness. Initial results showed that over all programmes and offenders, rehabilitation programmes are slightly more effective than no programmes.

    More detailed analyses demonstrated that programmes based on cognitive-behavioural principles and delivered with integrity, reduced reconvictions by between 10 and 40 percent, compared to reconviction rates for untreated controls.

    More recently, attempts have been to discover variables associated with success and failure of rehabilitative programmes. The emphasis has been on variables open to change, such as drug use, as opposed to fixed variables, such as number of previous convictions. The former have come to be known as dynamic variables or criminogenic needs, the latter as static variables. The goal is to find dynamic variables whose increase or decrease result in reduced probability of reconviction. Those variables can then be targeted for intervention.

    Efforts to identify dynamic variables and programmes to modify them are ongoing. Departmental projects are focusing on what is known and can be applied now, and the Psychological Service can contribute a good deal to these from its extensive work with offenders and its familiarity with the literature.

    Dynamic variables identified so far have been elements such as substance abuse, anti-social associates, employment, interpersonal conflict and accommodation. Programmes addressing these problems and following effective treatment principles will undoubtedly help offenders reduce their probability of re-offending. The Psychological Service can advise on the structure and content of such programmes, and how to apply effective treatment principles.

    Knowledge of how to assess dynamic variables, and what elements should be included in programmes to modify them, is still limited, however. It might well prove necessary to go beyond identifying offenders who, for instance, have substance abuse or employment or accommodation problems, and offer them a standard programme. Psychological variables underpinning such problems will almost certainly need to be identified and assessed, and receive specific psychological treatment, in groups and individually.

    The Psychological Service can make a major contribution in this area to the departmental aim of reducing re-offending. It already knows a great deal about such psychological variables, their assessment and treatments to modify them so reconviction probability is reduced. Nevertheless, many offenders do not respond to existing techniques. We need to know more about the variables, and better assessment and more effective treatment techniques must be developed.

    This developmental work will be most useful if integrated with daily hands-on clinical work. Special units and other programmes the Psychological Service has developed and implemented, attest to that. They arose from a combination of knowledge of the international literature, and experience, knowledge and research findings accumulated over years of clinical work by Psychological Service staff. Using Psychological Service treatment resources in this development work has great potential to contribute to the departmental aim of reducing re-offending.

    This paper has also suggested further efficiencies. These will accrue from developing psychological techniques to increase treatment consent and adherence; discovering why Maori offenders are reluctant to become involved in psychological treatment and addressing it; and costing the difference of delivering effective psychological treatment to Public Prisons and Community Corrections.