Book Review: Environmental corrections: A new paradigm for supervising offenders in the community

Lacey Schaefer, Francis T. Cullen and John E. Eck
Publisher: Sage Publications, 2016

Reviewed by Dr Peter Johnston
Director Research and Analysis, Department of Corrections

Author biography
Dr Johnston has been with the Department of Corrections for over 20 years. He started in the Corrections psychological service in Christchurch, as one of three psychologists who set up the first special treatment unit, Kia Marama, at Rolleston Prison in 1989. He then moved to prison services, where he was involved in setting up a prison-based “inmate assessment centre”. In his current role in National Office he leads a team of nine staff who undertake research and evaluation, and in-depth analysis of data to support new policy initiatives.

This book encourages probation officers to adopt environmental crime science principles into their direct management of offenders. It suggests that environmental corrections is potentially the next big thing in correctional practice, offering a complete “paradigm shift” in offender supervision. The book’s initial chapters suggest that current probation practice in the USA is ineffective, and does not always achieve its intended objectives. Community management of offenders has, in their view, been beset by the conflicting priorities of “control” versus “treatment”, with neither able to be properly effected in practice. They note that over the last 30 years in the US, “the addition of 3.5 million community corrections clients have … hamstrung efforts to effectively supervise offenders”. It is also argued that contemporary probation practice is bereft of “a cohesive and directive theory”, a situation they label “a disgrace” (p.8).

As an alternative, Schaefer, Cullen and Eck recommend wholesale adoption of what they call “environmental corrections”, based on environmental crime science. This model is built on a body of research that revolves around certain key research findings. Firstly, it holds that crime tends to occur in reasonably predictable ways, and is to a significant degree governed by the routines followed by offenders as they go about their daily lives. For example, it is known that houses are more likely to be burgled if they are located on thoroughfares along which offenders regularly travel, such as a main road between the central city area, and a suburb with a higher-than-average concentration of offenders living there.

Environmental crime science seeks also to exploit opportunities and insights which arise from the understanding that any given crime event requires three key elements: a motivated offender, an attractive target, and the absence of a capable guardian. It is claimed that the frequency with which crime occurs in any general location can be reduced by intervening with any of these factors. Commonly cited examples include improved lighting in streets, parks and alleys, as this effectively increases the likelihood that any criminal act will be observed by others who (thus enabled as “capable guardians”) then report their observations to Police. Advising the general public not to leave valuables in parked cars reduces the frequency of attractive targets. Making items more difficult to steal (e.g., cars fitted with immobilisers) has a similar effect.

However, the aspect of environmental crime science of greatest interest to these authors is the tendency for offenders’ crimes, to an extent, to be predictable in terms of locations, time of day/day of week, and with reference to specific companions. They argue that people generally, including offenders, have “relatively stable spatiotemporal movement patterns”. This means that an individual offender follows a routine that places him or her in certain places at certain times, and that the crimes the person commits will tend to occur in semi-predictable ways around these locations. This then opens up the possibility of controlling the offender’s risks of re-offending through exerting various forms of influence over the key crime event elements listed above: their motivational state, their encounters with (and perceptions of) attractive targets, and the presence of capable guardians.

On this basis the authors encourage a new approach to community correctional management, one that is heavily focused on “opportunity reduction supervision”. This form of management starts with a comprehensive assessment of each individual offender’s offending patterns. The critical focus is on answering the following questions:

  • with whom does the individual commit crime?
  • when does the individual commit crime?
  • where does the offender commit crime? and
  • why does the offender commit crime?

Answering these questions at the individual offender level then enables the probation officer to work with the offender to create a case plan, customised to the unique risks and criminogenic needs presented by the individual offender. The plan thereby directs effort towards reducing the offender’s exposure and vulnerability to “crime opportunities”.

So far, so good. However, once the book turns to the question of “how to intervene” using this knowledge, weaknesses of the approach become apparent. As it turns out, the recommended techniques for turning insights into intervention are fairly ordinary, in fact already commonly used in practice in New Zealand. In discussing the issue of antisocial associates, the authors recommend that “for instance, the client should be prohibited (emphases added) from being around or communicating with co-offenders that the individual has a documented history of committing crime with” (p.62). Similarly, the offender “should only be allowed to associate with potential co-offenders when identified prosocial influences are present” (ibid). High-risk times of the day are controlled by “structuring the offender’s time through restrictions … such as curfew, and the replacement of access to crime opportunities … with exposure to … employment”. With regard to known crime “hotspots”, the offender should be “re-directed to geographic safe zones where crime opportunities are minimal” (p. 63). It is similarly advised that “the probationer should be restricted from being in the presence of … crime precipitators (such as) alcohol consumption”.

This section of the book, which attempts to operationalise the insights of crime science, abounds with phrases similar to those emphasised above. Offenders are to be “actively discouraged”, “allowed”, and “required to” do certain things. Certain activities are to be “forbidden”, “substituted with”, and so on.

While sounding plausible, one is left with the sense that these kinds of injunctions are likely to “work” only with motivated and co-operative offenders who are already engaged in personal change. Arguably, the vast majority of offenders managed on community sentences fall somewhat short of this ideal state. This raises the question of precisely how a probation officer is expected to “discourage”, “allow”, or “require” unmotivated offenders to do the things needed to reduce crime.

Here, the advice seems to consist of just two primary options: “graduated consequences” (the “stick”) and “earned discharge” (the “carrot”). The former principle enjoins the probation officer to convey clearly to the offender that misbehaviour will certainly be “punished”, via a series of progressively increased “noxious consequences” (not further defined), each applied at a level of strength which “matches the severity of the infraction” (p. 66). The second principle is use of “accelerated release” from the community sentence or order, when the offender demonstrates “arrest-free behaviour and self-sufficiency”. A later chapter adds the idea that, where possible, the probation officer ought to enlist the services of the local Police, both in terms of directly monitoring individual offenders, and through increasing their supervision of common “targets and places”. It is acknowledged however that Police may have limited resources to direct into such activity.

In some ways this is an odd book. The authors promote the sense that environmental corrections ought be the “next big thing”, but in outlining their manifesto they repeatedly refer to articles they themselves published on this topic nearly 15 years ago. One wonders why the claims for the superiority of their proposed approach would be any more successful now than when it first appeared in 2002. Other oddities like this occur: they refer approvingly to “upcoming” ecological theories (p.26) but reference this with an article published in 1981!

Overall, the sense is left that there may not in fact be much that is new here. In some ways the advice given is simply a modest enhancement to what is widely known as “relapse prevention training”. Competent correctional personnel already understand the importance of “offence mapping”, whereby the familiar pathways resulting in prior offences are carefully unpacked and detailed in discussion with the offender, and the principles of avoiding “high risk situations” are designed and agreed upon. Much of this type of intervention – which New Zealand probation officers are generally well familiar with – encompasses most of the principles and ideas that are promoted here as unique to “environmental corrections”.

Probation officers, correctional programme facilitators and personnel involved in offender reintegration will likely gain some useful insights from reading this book. However, it seems unlikely that its conceptual and practical innovation will be sufficient to usher in anything approaching a “paradigm shift” in community offender management in New Zealand.


Schaefer, L., Cullen, F.T., & Eck, J.E. (2016). Environmental corrections: A new paradigm for supervising offenders in the community. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.