What works now

Headline Conclusions – “What Works Now?”

  • The effectiveness of correctional rehabilitation continues to be confirmed through a wealth of published outcome studies.
  • Offender risk assessment remains both a valid and valuable procedure in supporting good offender management; a range of new risk assessment tools allows for better targeting of offenders with services.
  • Psychologically-based programmes continue to demonstrate robust outcomes in offender rehabilitation.
  • Good outcomes are being widely achieved through educational and employment training; provision of education and employment in conjunction with other forms of correctional rehabilitation is likely to bring about the best results.
  • Reintegrative services (social supports to released prisoners) can also improve outcomes for offenders who have participated in other forms of rehabilitation, but delivered in isolation these services appear to have limited impact.
  • Further evidence is required to validate the effectiveness of culture and faith-based services.
  • While poor programme outcomes continue to be reported, these are usually a result of inadequacies in how services are delivered; of particular importance is competence and skill in correctional rehabilitation facilitators.
  • The general principle of ensuring a comprehensive approach to rehabilitation, with a range of services addressing the individual’s functioning across all key areas of their life – psychological, educational, employment and social circumstances – is strongly supported.

Executive Summary

A substantial body of research evidence, known as the “What Works” literature, was influential in the design of the Department’s current sentence management framework.  This literature revolved around a number of key principles of correctional rehabilitation which, if adhered to in the design and delivery of services, would reliably lead to reduced rates of re-offending.  The principles of effective correctional rehabilitation can be divided into three major domains, namely risk, targets and “responsivity”.

It is now more than ten years since the main features of the existing sentence management framework were adopted.  The current review examines new research published over the last decade that relates to these three domains.  In doing so, the approach taken was not limited to publications directly aligned with the “what works” paradigm; the goal was to consider all new evidence which related to effective correctional rehabilitation.

The main findings of the review are presented below under the headings relating to each of the three main domain areas.

In relation to risk assessment, the current review concludes that knowledge of an offender’s relative likelihood of recidivism remains valuable in supporting effective correctional treatment.  Evidence confirming the accuracy and utility of a variety of risk assessment tools has continued to accumulate.  Structured risk prediction tools have been adopted in countries around the world, and are in use in a range of ways to assist efficient offender management.

The utility of risk data has been demonstrated in serving both incapacitative and rehabilitative goals.  With respect to the latter, the principle that treatment should be targeted at medium- and high-risk offenders, rather than low-risk offenders, has continued to receive empirical support.

Risk prediction tools have proliferated, and principles for their optimal use have become clearer.  For the general offender population, research suggests that risk tools should be clearly structured to assess static (stable, enduring) risk factors or both static and dynamic (more changeable) factors.  Accurate estimations of risk can also be produced by tools that guide clinical judgement.  Assessing acute (highly changeable) factors can also provide guidance about whether offending may be imminent. 

More recently, innovations have included risk assessment tools that are specific to certain types of offending, especially violent and sexual recidivism, and these specialised risk assessment tools have been proven to be more accurate than generic risk tools.  Similarly, more accurate estimations of risk can be produced when specific tools are used for youth offenders and to assess psychopathic offenders.

Finally, there is now some evidence suggesting that assessment of positive characteristics in an offender’s life (skills, strengths and social resources) are relevant to risk of re-offending, and should be included in an overall risk assessment. 

The current review adopts the term “target” to refer to those aspects of the offender’s personality, lifestyle or circumstances which, if effectively remedied in some way, lead to positive (reduced re-offending) outcomes.  The term replaces the previous “criminogenic need” concept, which is no longer as widely accepted.

From an examination of published outcome studies, the following personal characteristics continue to show value as a focus for correctional intervention:

  • anti-social attitudes and beliefs
  • anti-social peer associations
  • deviant sexual interests
  • substance abuse and dependency
  • poor self-management and problem-solving skills
  • familial conflict and dysfunction
  • psychiatric disorders
  • education and employment related deficits.

A great deal of published research in the last decade has confirmed low self-control as being central to the propensity to commit crime.  As such this construct is confirmed as having great importance as a focus for treatment effort.

At this stage it remains unclear whether violence propensity per se should be classified as a target, as recent evidence has produced equivocal findings.  Violence appears multifaceted with a wide range of contributory causes and, on this basis, taking a broad therapeutic approach is advocated

Prior to 1998 (the time around which the Department’s sentence management approach was being formulated), education and employment-related activity were regarded largely as valuable “time-fillers” for prisoners, as the evidence for their utility in reducing re-offending was relatively slim.  However, in the last ten years a range of robust studies has accumulated showing positive outcomes achieved as a result of targeting offenders with educational and employment-related training.

Less compelling evidence has been produced to support the simple targeting of reintegrative concerns (e.g., ensuring that released prisoners’ accommodation, employment and social support issues were addressed), although this type of activity has been shown to be of benefit when provided in support of rehabilitation programmes.

Offending committed by different sub-groups is now better understood as having different etiologies and offence pathways.  Consequently, targeting of characteristics that are specific to such sub-groups is supported.  This research has had particular implications for the tailoring of treatment content directed at child-sex offenders and rapists.  It is also recognised that the valid targets identified above are also effective targets in youth and female offenders.  Psychiatric difficulties, relationship and family issues, and histories of victimisation have particular relevance for women.  For youth, reducing the influence of anti-social peers, and engaging family and wider social network personnel as influences of change have strong validity.

“Target” refers to the specific focus for an intervention; responsivity refers to the manner or style in which an intervention is delivered.  Recent research largely confirms much of what was already accepted ten years ago, but some new developments have arisen.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), involving techniques such as cognitive restructuring and social skills training, remains a “treatment of choice” in the correctional setting.  However, the following theoretical approaches to treatment (some of which also incorporate CBT techniques) are also showing considerable promise:

  • Strengths-based approaches
  • Dialectic Behavioural Therapy
  • Moral Reconation Therapy
  • Purely motivational interventions
  • Therapeutic Community approaches
  • Indigenous culture-based services.

Faith-based interventions with offenders have expanded rapidly in many countries over the last ten years.  However, at this point there is no conclusive evidence that such approaches can be effective.

With respect to the style of delivery, achieving positive outcomes means that correctional interventions need to conform to the following principles:

  • match the intensity of the programme or service (duration, number of sessions, amount of direct contact with programme personnel) to the risk profile of the offender
  • have a high degree of integrity, including:
    • basing the programme on a coherent theory of criminal behaviour
    • having manuals detailing content and procedures
    • having appropriately selected staff
    • monitoring of both the staff delivering the programme and individual offenders’ progress
    • high levels of support for staff
    • ensuring a high proportion of participants complete the programme
  • be congruent with the cultural backgrounds of participants (use of language, concepts, imagery, etc)
  • be tailored to suit the specific learning styles of participants (e.g., an interactive and multi-dimensional approach to youth treatment, and taking a structured, repetitive behavioural approach for offenders with lower intellectual functioning)
  • where programmes are delivered in an institutional setting, include an “aftercare” phase in the community.

Intervention programmes have proven effective when delivered in a group setting.  Evidence suggests that programmes may be more effective when delivered to offenders in the community rather than custodial environments; however this could reflect differences (such as the relative risk of offenders) in the community and custodial populations.  Programmes in which offenders are mandated to attend have been shown to achieve positive outcomes. 

The following staff characteristics have been associated with good outcomes in correctional rehabilitation programmes:

  • interpersonal manners characterised by empathy, respect, warmth, confidence and persuasiveness
  • staff members who are aware of their own biases and preconceptions
  • qualifications and training in a relevant professional discipline such as clinical psychology.

In summary, the main conclusion to be drawn from the current review is that the core principles adopted to underpin the original design of the Department’s sentence management framework in the late 1990s are validated by recent research. 

New developments have occurred, and this Department’s own research has led the way in several areas.  Opportunities exist for the Department to improve its procedures and approaches, and range of services, to rehabilitation.  However, the Department can have confidence that the fundamental shift that occurred ten years ago, in adopting certain rehabilitative principles, remains both sound and rational as the basis for effective offender rehabilitation.