Twenty years of Corrections - The evolution of offender rehabilitation

Dr Peter Johnston

Director Research and Analysis

Executive summary

The Department of Corrections was established 20 years ago on 1 October 1995. In recognition of this milestone, Practice looks at the evolution in theory and practice in offender rehabilitation over these last two decades.

New Zealand’s history of correctional rehabilitation includes world-leading developments in rehabilitation design, as well as in offender assessment, and rehabilitation outcomes evaluation. A commitment to rehabilitation was not absent during the decades leading up to the establishment of the Department of Corrections, but since 1995 this objective has become increasingly central to how the department views itself and its core objectives.


In the 1970s and 1980s, prisons and probation services were incorporated within the all-encompassing Department of Justice. While rehabilitation was an acknowledged issue in working with offenders, by and large the task at hand was viewed as safe and humane containment of prisoners, and ensuring compliance with community sentences. Employment activity in prison, along with education and such like, was viewed mainly as a way of constructively filling in prisoners’ time. Within the community, supportive work with offenders tended to be limited to helping offenders with immediate problems, such as housing or income.

A small workforce of psychologists delivered some treatment to offenders, usually on a one-to-one basis, and less frequently in group settings. However, little consistency applied as to who psychologists should best spend their time with, or what issues and concerns should be the focus of treatment. For example, in the 1970s ‘psychodynamic’ treatment was not uncommon, with offenders encouraged to share their nocturnal dreams in order that the psychologist might ‘interpret’ them. Apart from this, occasional group treatment for offenders with drug or alcohol problems was delivered in some prisons, often by recovered alcoholics with a strong commitment to the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) philosophy.

In the wider social and political environment, however, developments were occurring that supported a change in correctional emphasis. In 1981, a ‘Penal Policy Review Committee’ focused on the need to reduce re-offending as a critical goal. Its recommendations included greater use of community sentences, or prisoners being located in prisons as close as possible to their home community. To this end the concept of ‘regional prisons’ was strongly promoted. Also integral to the review was the concept of through-care and integration on release into the community.

In 1987 a Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into the Prison System was held. Chaired by Sir Clinton Roper, the subsequent report, Te Ara Hou: The New Way (1989), recommended far-reaching changes for the justice sector, including the idea of a new standalone department for corrections services. Among other changes, Te Ara Hou recommended therapeutic programmes separate from the prison system, privately run habilitation centres, and partnerships with iwi and community groups. There was a strong emphasis on the
community ‘coming on board’ to help in reducing the number of people re-offending.

With respect specifically to offender rehabilitation design, things began to change especially during the late 1980s. An accumulating body of knowledge, experience and research evidence, on ‘what works’ with offenders became known to staff within the department and academics with an interest in this area. In 1985 the then Director of Psychological Services (Harry Love) wrote a ‘five year plan’ which laid the foundations for the future direction of psychological services and the department towards risk assessment and prioritisation of high risk offenders. Prof. Paul Gendreau from Canada was brought over to assist the Manager of Policy and Research to conduct a review of how psychologists work in the department.

Collaboration between head office staff, departmental psychologists and academics (especially at Canterbury University) further advanced interventions grounded in evidence-based principles of effective correctional rehabilitation. A key milestone was the piloting of a comprehensive treatment programme for sex offenders at Rolleston Prison. The Kia Marama programme, which opened in 1989 (and is still operating successfully today), heralded the more or less complete transformation of offender rehabilitation across the entire correctional scene in New Zealand.

In 1995 the Department of Corrections was established, and Mark Byers was appointed as the first Chief Executive. Mr Byers from the outset spoke unequivocally of his intention that the department would focus its efforts on reducing re-offending. He began to familiarise himself with the current state of rehabilitation services, quickly concluding that these were poorly structured, and lacking clear focus on outcomes. He also sought advice from those with knowledge of the emerging ‘what works’ body of knowledge, and encouraged his national office teams to get to work on building a coherent and integrated framework for delivering high quality rehabilitation to offenders.

The Integrated Offender Management (IOM) Project

Not long before the new department formed, the policy team at national office had produced a summary paper on what was known internationally about effective correctional rehabilitation (McLaren, 1992). This paper was widely read, and triggered both strong motivation, and a sense of direction, towards building the framework for offender management that could deliver good outcomes for reducing re-offending. The concepts of ‘risk, need and responsivity’ (RNR) were to be central to this framework. In 1997, a project team was formed involving expertise from the field, national office, and external parties. Four sub-projects were launched – induction, assessment, sentence management, and reintegration. Over the following four years, the project teams worked to produce a comprehensive set of policies, procedures, tools and manuals for use by frontline staff. A process was mapped out whereby each offender would, from the outset, be inducted into the sentence, with clear messaging about the idea of using his/her sentence to address offending-related behaviour. The following assessment phase included a comprehensive assessment of risks and needs, and motivation for change, leading the development of a sentence plan prescribing relevant rehabilitative and reintegrative activities. The sentence management phase was based on the sentence plan, during which time staff involved would work with each offender to address all of the relevant activities on the sentence plan, and to generally work at maintaining motivation for change. Finally, the reintegration phase planned prisoners’ release back into the community. The IOM framework went ‘live’ in early 2001.

Risk and needs assessment

Accurate assessing of risk is a core component of the ‘what works’ approach. Risk assessment ensures that programmes are directed to those most in need of change. Work had already begun within the Psychological Service prior to 1995 on developing an actuarial risk assessment tool. Known as RoC*RoI (Risk of reconviction/Risk of reimprisonment), the risk tool was integrated into the department’s operational database (IOMS) in 1998, and became an essential element of the new offender management process. Importantly, it enabled rational decisions to be made on which offenders should be prioritised for specific programmes and interventions. RoC*RoI has proven to have a high level of accuracy at the group level, and continues to be invaluable as a sentence planning tool, as well as an adjunct to the judgements of staff including probation officers, case managers, psychologists and the Parole Board.

More recent years have seen the introduction of a range of additional risk measures which have improved the department’s ability to manage offenders. This included the Automated Sexual Recidivism Scale, another static risk measure that is widely used for sex offenders. Psychologists also pioneered use of dynamic risk measures for assessment of specific types of offenders, such as the Violence Risk Scale and the ‘STABLE’. More recently, the Dynamic Risk Assessment for Offender Re-entry (DRAOR) was adopted for use by probation staff. DRAOR measures dynamic (changeable) factors about an offender that contribute to an offender’s risk and is used throughout an offender’s sentence or order. The essential difference between RoC*RoI and DRAOR, is that DRAOR involves assessment and management of risk ‘in the moment’, whereas RoC*RoI does not. A similar tool adapted for use in the prison setting, the Structured Dynamic Assessment Case-management (SDAC-21), has also been implemented recently.

Various approaches to identifying the offending-related issues which were suitable targets for rehabilitation were piloted and implemented. The first of these, known as the Criminogenic Needs Inventory (CNI) was extremely comprehensive, providing a rich picture of the offending dynamics of each individual offender. However, the CNI was eventually discontinued as it took too long to complete (up to 12 hours per assessment). More streamlined assessment methods were subsequently designed to replace it.

Measuring effectiveness

The ability to accurately measure the impact of rehabilitation programmes was quickly understood as critical to ensuring that limited funds were expended to best effect. Work on designing a suitable measurement technique commenced in 2001, the result being the ‘Rehabilitation Quotient’ (RQ) method. By 2004 design of the methodology had been fully finalised, and results of RQ analyses began to be published in successive annual reports. The findings emerging from these yearly investigations have directly supported decisions to expand our most successful programmes (Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation Programmes), refine and strengthen those that were producing lower-than-expected results (former ‘100-hour’ programmes), and discontinue programmes that consistently failed to perform (e.g., ‘Straight Thinking’ – see below). The department remains the only correctional service in the world that undertakes comprehensive outcomes analysis of its full suite of routine rehabilitative delivery on a regular basis, as well as publishing the results.

Structured rehabilitation programmes

Along with taking a more evidence-based approach to risk and needs assessment, the department looked overseas to introduce the best of correctional practice programme design. As noted already, the Kia Marama unit at Rolleston Prison (which opened in 1989), provided the first model of a structured, comprehensive and rigorously designed style of group-based rehabilitation. This initial design, though implemented with sex offenders, was later adapted and applied to serious violent offenders, in the Violence Prevention Unit which opened at Rimutaka Prison in 1998.

The first structured programme for offenders generally, and delivered both within community probation and prisons, was known as ‘Straight Thinking’ (ST). Introduced in 1995, ST was loosely based on ‘cognitive skills’ programmes developed in North America. This relatively low intensity programme (70 hours duration) aimed to teach reasoning skills that would enable offenders to avoid going down well-worn pathways ending in criminal acts. ST was delivered largely by re-trained prison officers and probation officers, but was discontinued in 2006 following three successive annual evaluations which showed no beneficial impact on re-offending rates.

In the meantime, the Special Treatment Unit (STU) Rehabilitation Programme was expanding, with several more opening in the last 10 years. These specialised and intensive programmes have become the most successful of the entire suite of rehabilitation the department delivers, consistently producing impacts on re-offending as good as any programme in the world. The latest (2014/15) Department of Corrections Annual Report contains reductions in rates of reimprisonment after 12 months of nearly 10 percentage points, and a 17 percentage point reduction in reconviction rates for high risk violent offenders completing the STURP programmes.

The core elements of the STU programme formed the template for lower-intensity programmes to be delivered in a range of settings, both within prison and the community. Several variants of these programmes were designed in the late 1990s; known as ‘100-hour programmes’, variants were designed for drug and alcohol dependent offenders, driving offenders, and a ‘generic’ version for all others. Initial evaluations of these programmes were disappointing, with the result that they were extensively re-designed and improved, resulting in the new ‘Medium-Intensity Rehabilitation Programme’ (MIRP) which has been available since 2006, both in prisons and in the community. Subsequently, shorter forms of the programme have been adapted for small groups of offenders (the ‘Short Rehabilitation Programme’), as well as innovations such as short motivational programmes using a similar format.

Drug and alcohol treatment

Drug and alcohol treatment has remained a feature of the department’s rehabilitative ‘landscape’ throughout its existence. However, the kind of informal and largely unstructured group programme that existed around 1995 has been entirely swept away. In its place the department has sought to apply a range of rehabilitative options of differing intensities that can be applied to match the severity of need with which offenders present. A drug treatment unit (DTU) at Rolleston Prison, which opened in 1997, was the first foray into structured and well-designed alcohol and other drug (AoD) treatment. This initiative was then largely copied in two other prisons, with contracts to run them signed with an external provider, CareNZ. Early results from these programmes were promising, leading to further expansion: by 2005 there were eight DTUs in operation. A shorter three-month version was rolled out in 2011. Since then, in further recognition of the widespread prevalence of drug and alcohol problems amongst the offender population, several other lower-intensity forms of AoD programming have been deployed, to the extent that, currently, nearly 30,000 instances of treatment are being delivered in a single year.

Education and employment

Although a perennial feature of prison life, as has already been noted, education and employment were typically regarded primarily as useful time-fillers for prisoners. Prior to 1995, educational courses tended to be of poor quality, and seldom related to improving employment prospects. Prison work was often menial, with the best jobs reserved for prisoners already known to be ‘good workers’. The perception that such activities were relatively unimportant continued to hold following the implementation of IOM, to an extent reflecting the fact that the research evidence for education and employment reducing re-offending was not strong. However, despite some general scepticism, a number of key staff in the field and national office continued to work assiduously to improve quality of services in both areas. An increasingly rich range of opportunities for prisoners was developed allowing achievement of school qualifications, trade certification and even tertiary degrees. Literacy education became a special focus from around 2010. The importance of collaboration between government and non-government providers is recognised, to increase access to the range of programmes that support offenders across their broad and often complex range of needs. Since 2013 an expert advisory group has been in place to guide the design, development and implementation of offender education and training.

Employment became increasingly directed towards prisoners who lacked employment skills, with the types of employment training provided increasingly tailored to the job market to which prisoners will return. These efforts have paid off, with recent years’ RQ analyses showing positive results both for prisoner education and for employment placements. More recently, the ‘working prisons’ concept has further advanced the idea that prisons should be places of industry, treatment and learning, with prisoners fully and constructively engaged each week in a diverse mix of education, employment and rehabilitation programmes.

Cultural interventions

In recognition that Mäori account for a disproportionate number of those managed by the department, and the fact that re-offending rates were higher amongst Mäori than non-Mäori, there was immediate interest in exploring ways in which uniquely cultural interventions might be developed to address these issues. The first initiative was design of the Mäori Focus Unit (MFU) concept. Now known as Te Tirohanga, units were established in five North Island prisons, each of which sought to cultivate and maintain a unit environment steeped in Mäori cultural values and practices. Bi-cultural versions of the medium-intensity programmes were also designed and delivered within the MFUs. In addition, prisons and probation offices forged links with local iwi groups and invited them to deliver culturally-based tikanga courses, as a means of re-connecting offenders to their cultural heritage. A culturally-focused assessment known as ‘Special Mäori Cultural Assessment’ (SMCA) was piloted in the upper central North Island, where it continues to be used.

Construction of Spring Hill Corrections Facility (SHCF) near Huntly was seen as an opportunity to deliver new approaches for Pacific offenders also. This included developing a Pacific Focus Unit, as well as a Pacific version of a violence prevention programme (Saili Matagi). Both of these initiatives have continued successfully for nearly a decade.

Throughout the last 20 years the department has also sought to ensure that all programmes and services were designed in a manner that respected and valued the cultural needs of all participants. Importantly, a 2003 evaluation of the Te Piriti STU at Auckland Prison suggested that use of Maori concepts and processes in a group based programme enhanced the positive impacts for all participants.

Corrections officers as ‘agents of positive influence’

Prior to introduction of IOM principles around 1998-2001, there tended to be a fairly sharp delineation between prison officers (as they were then known) and staff from ‘programmes’. Although a form of case management had been put in place in 1991, many prison officers regarded their role primarily in terms of its custodial/security functions. IOM was significant also in introducing the concept of ‘active management’ (AM). AM signified the expectation that all staff should regard themselves as having a role in rehabilitation, particularly through using every contact as an opportunity to positively influence offenders. Key elements of the AM framework included knowledge of the individual offender, good communication between staff and with offenders, responsiveness to emerging issues, and ‘exerting influence’. All custodial staff were trained in AM principles and practice between 2001 and 2003. The AM approach has more recently been revised and refreshed as ‘Right Track’ (RT), introduced in 2012. RT similarly supports staff to take an offender-centric, co-operative approach, with an emphasis on collaboration between all personnel working with an offender – frontline staff, case manager, programme facilitators and psychologists. Regular RT meetings are another key feature, during which plans to keep the offender ‘on track’ are developed and maintained. Since 2011, specialist case managers, many of whom are former corrections officers, have operated across all prisons. Case managers play a pivotal role in motivating offenders and helping them transition from custody to community.

Probation practice

A transformation similar to that in prisons took place also within the probation service. As has already been noted, the role of the probation officers (POs) historically had been regarded largely in terms of sentence compliance, although with a strong social work overlay. A majority of probation staff prior to 1995 had social work backgrounds, and though they approached their work with a strong human service orientation, the work tended to focus heavily on ensuring that the sentence or order was completed without undue complication. A number of events through the first decade since 2000, mainly involving violent re-offending, served to change this singular focus. Probation practice began to change, with two key areas of enlarged focus. The first was on identification and management of acute risk amongst offenders being managed in the community. This was assisted by better risk assessment procedures, a professional decision-making framework, and more focused and skilled input into the management of offenders identified as posing acute risks. The second area of development was in terms of offender rehabilitation, with POs increasingly regarding their role as specifically rehabilitative in function. This was particularly assisted through the Integrated Practice Framework, introduced in 2010, which equipped POs with a number of discrete skill sets with which to work productively with the offending-related needs that presented in the course of individual case work.

Summary and conclusion

In the last 20 years Corrections has undergone significant change in its practices with respect to offender rehabilitation, changes that have driven a huge shift in the culture of the organisation and in how staff, across the board, see their roles.

In 1995, probably fewer than five per cent of the offenders managed each year by the department would have experienced effective rehabilitative input. One of the greatest achievements of the last 20 years is that today almost every offender receives some form of intervention. This can range from very ‘light touch’ forms (such as a ‘work and living skills’ course for offenders serving a community work sentence), right through to a nine-months long, intensive STURP experience. In between is a huge array of valuable interventions which target all the relevant needs and risks issues which are known to drive offending behaviour.

The goal of reducing re-offending has been present throughout the 20 years since the department’s establishment. However, in the last four years this goal has come into a much sharper focus with the setting of a target to ‘reduce re-offending by 25% by 2017’. This ambitious target has helped other agencies and partners from the private and NGO sectors come together around a common goal. The pursuit of the target has also brought into the frame a greater appreciation of the value of reduced re-offending rates – clarifying that the end goal is fewer victims of crime, and safer communities. Judging by the results of the annual RQ analysis, the department has made massive strides towards improving the safety of the communities which it serves.


Kaye McLaren, Reducing reoffending: What works now? (1992) Wellington, N.Z. Penal Division, Dept. of Justice.

Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into the Prisons System (1989) Prison Review. Te Ara Hou: The New Way, Crown: Wellington.a