Editorial - Rehabilitation, reintegration, and the psychology of criminal conduct

The Department of Corrections has traditionally distinguished between two domains of activity relating to reducing offenders’ risks of re-offending: the rehabilitative and the reintegrative. In simple terms, the rehabilitative relates to efforts to bring about “intra-personal” changes within the individual – positive change to attitudes and beliefs, ways of responding emotionally to frustration, enhanced empathy for others, improved skills for relationships, and so on. The reintegrative is more concerned with removing environmental obstacles to a law-abiding lifestyle – things like homelessness, unemployment, and lack of social supports. Both are important.

The current edition is, if anything, weighted towards the reintegrative side. Corrections researchers Dr Bronwyn Morrison and Jill Bowman present findings from a (semi-) longitudinal study, investigating the experiences of prisoners in the weeks and months after leaving prison, which identifies the kinds of obstacles commonly encountered by these individuals, and contains useful pointers to ways in which reintegrative supports can be enhanced. Steve Cunningham’s article describes important advances in our assistance to offenders in finding employment. Jonathan Muirhead seeks to usefully expand knowledge on what works in connecting offenders to social support networks. Nigel Banks adds to our understanding of what can be done to get better outcomes from educational services within prison.

There is content relating closely to the rehabilitative domain also. Jimmie Fourie tackles the difficult but important issue of how best to engage sex offenders who completely deny guilt for offences of which they have been convicted. This edition also includes some valued contributions from colleagues in Australia. Forensic psychologists Justin Trounson and Jeffrey Pfeifer from Melbourne usefully comment on the area of corrections officer wellbeing, and how it can be protected and promoted. Also from Melbourne, Dr Marietta Martinovic summarises what is known internationally on the effectiveness of electronic monitoring, an area in which she is a world-leading researcher.

Paradoxically, at around 300 words, the shortest contribution to this edition, is in some ways one of the most important. I refer to Glen Kilgour’s review (see p 68) of the landmark text The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, recently released in its sixth edition. Glen rightly comments that this book has been, for more than 20 years, “go- to” reading for criminal justice professionals. It is worth pointing out again just how foundational this text has been to the whole framework of correctional rehabilitation, as practiced here in New Zealand, as well as in many other countries.

What is so important about this book is the fact that it firmly orients our attention to the “intra-personal” features and dynamics that drive offending. The concept of criminality is one of the most debated and diversely understood concepts in all of social science. Andrews and Bonta’s greatest contribution has been to conclusively demonstrate the weaknesses and inadequacies of many sociological and criminological theories about crime and criminality.

In their place, they marshalled overwhelming research evidence to support the validity of the focus on specific characteristics of the person, which they argue are the primary “causes” of criminal conduct.

These characteristics are now well-known, and include pro-criminal attitudes and beliefs, personality features such as impulsivity, recklessness and callous disregard for others, poor relationship skills, preference for association with antisocial peers, and propensity to abuse drugs and alcohol. The intrapersonal perspective on criminality has been powerfully validated by the greatest social science research ever conducted in New Zealand, the Dunedin longitudinal study. Findings from this study have conclusively shown that personal behavioural characteristics evident in young children strongly predict behaviour later in life, including criminality.

The corollary to this “diagnosis” is that success can only come if these core tendencies and patterns of behaviour are addressed therapeutically, and different attitudes, values, and social and interpersonal skills, are cultivated and supported. There is no question that helping offenders to find employment, improving their housing, and assisting with the many life problems that they experience, are also important, and contribute to reducing re-offending.

However, interventions of this nature will have very limited effects if the core personal characteristics, that together constitute the essential criminal disposition, remain.

Dr Peter Johnston
Director Research and Analysis