There are many instances in the media of programs that appear to be successful and while some may be for a short time and for singular reasons, the evidence as determined by rigorous evaluation has still not identified large scale and replicable programs that reduce recidivism at a statistical level high enough to be able to effectively challenge the current 60-70% national recidivism rate; and indeed, some programs actually make the problem worse.
1) James Q. Wilson describes rigorous evaluation in the text he co-edited with Joan Petersilia, Crime: Public Policies for Crime Control.
“There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of crime-prevention programs under way. Many may work (and, of course, all their leaders think they work). But which actually work can only be determined by a rigorous evaluation. Not many have been evaluated in this way. A rigorous evaluation requires four things to be done: First, people must be assigned randomly to either the prevention program or a control group. Random assignment virtually eliminates the chance that those in the program will differ in some unknown way from those not in it. Random assignment is better than trying to match people in the two because we probably will not know (or even be able to observe) all the ways by which they should be matched. Second, the prevention must actually be applied. Sometimes people are enrolled in a program but do not in fact get the planned treatment. Third, the positive benefit, if any, of the program must last for at least one year after the program ends. It is not hard to change people while they are in a program; what is difficult is to make the change last afterward. Fourth, if the program produces a positive effect (that is, people in it are less likely to commit crimes that similar ones not in it), that program should be evaluated again in a different location. Some programs will work once because they are run by exceptional people or in a community that facilitates its success; the critical test is to see if they will run when tried elsewhere using different people. (p. 553)
2) Traditional service-based rehabilitation programs have been in use for the past several decades and including the more recent faith-based efforts, they have a dismal record of success, noted by Farabee (2005):
“I wish it were otherwise, but scientific evidence is sorely lacking to support the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs for criminal offenders. It is similarly lacking to support the effectiveness of most programs aimed at treating conditions that exacerbate crime, such as substance abuse and dependence. Although a limited menu of behavioral and pharmacological treatments have shown small to moderate effects among offenders when administered under controlled research conditions, those effects tend to decline rapidly soon after criminal justice supervision is withdrawn. Moreover, these empirically validated interventions are almost entirely unavailable to offenders in day-to-day practice. The vast majority of services for offenders and substance abusers in this country are group-based, peer-administered, and loosely modeled on an amalgam of psycho-educational and twelve-step principles. Typically, the “ingredients” or “mechanisms of action” of these interventions are so vaguely defined as to be essentially unmeasurable, unverifiable, and unfalsifiable. And because the interventions are rarely, if ever, standardized or systemized, they are delivered quite differently across different programs, making it nearly impossible to discern the effects of such an elusive target.” (Farabee, D. (2005). Rethinking rehabilitation: Why can’t we reform our criminals?. Washington D.C.: AEI Press. p. ix)
3) A recent example of a traditionally designed rehabilitation program actually making things worse is reported by Wilson (2007) regarding Project Greenlight, a well-funded and closely evaluated—rare for the field—reentry effort that failed spectacularly:
“Project Greenlight participants showed worse outcomes for every type of recidivism at 6 and 12 months after release. The chart “Percent of Participants Who Recidivated at 6 and 12 Months” shows the percentage of each group that experienced any kind of arrest (misdemeanor or felony), felony arrest only, and parole revocation. It is especially noteworthy—because it is statistically significant—that the overall arrest rate for the Project Greenlight group was 10 percent higher than that for the TSP group at 12 months postrelease (34 percent versus 24 percent). Also statistically significant is the 12 percent more parole revocations experienced by the Project Greenlight group than the UPS group at 12 months postrelease (25 percent versus 13 percent).
“Several findings of the evaluation were at odds with program expectations. Most notably, Project Greenlight participants’ postrelease outcomes were significantly worse than those of the TSP and UPS groups. The evaluation found that the Project Greenlight program had no effect on the interim outcomes that it was designed to address—including housing, employment, and parole—and that Project Greenlight participants fared significantly worse than the two control groups in rearrest and parole revocation rates at the 1-year mark. In addition, although Project Greenlight participants displayed greater knowledge of parole conditions, showed more positive attitudes toward parole, received more service referrals, and reported greater contact with service providers after release, none of these translated into better outcomes.” (Habilitation or Harm: Project Greenlight and the Potential Consequences of Correctional Programming, by James A. Wilson, Ph.D.)
4) Another recent and much more costly example of making things worse, by California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—$1 billion for all prisoner and parolee programs since 1989, and $278 million of that for in-prison programs—was reported by the Office of the Inspector General (2007):
“According to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, more than 36,000 of the state’s 172,500 inmates—21 percent of the adult prison population—are serving prison terms for drug offenses. An even higher percentage reportedly has underlying substance abuse problems. A recent University of California study estimated that 42 percent of California inmates have a “high need” for alcohol treatment and 56 percent have a high need for drug treatment. Recidivism rates for California inmates in general continue to be among the highest in the country.
“In a 60-page special review released Wednesday, the Office of the Inspector General reported that numerous university studies of the state’s in-prison substance abuse programs conducted over the past nine years consistently show no difference in recidivism rates between inmates who participated in the programs and those who received no substance abuse treatment. One five-year University of California, Los Angeles, study of the state’s two largest in-prison programs found, in fact, that the 12-month recidivism rates for inmates who received in-prison treatment was slightly higher than that of a control group.” Office of the Inspector General, Sacramento, California, February 21, 2007 Press Release “The states substance abuse treatment program for inmates do not reduce recidivism, yet cost the state $143 million per year” , pp. 1-2 italicized in original)
5) Another recent evaluation of a major reentry effort making things worse: the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, funded at $100 million dollars, which worked with criminals inside of prison and out, showed that results for the adult males revealed that the program actually made the problem worse.
“Cumulative rearrest rates were calculated for 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 21, and 24 months after release. SVORI program participants were less likely to have an officially recorded rearrest during the 24-month period after release. The differences were small and not significant for the men. … By 24 months post-release, the reincarceration rate for adult male SVORI program participants was about 8% higher than the non-SVORI rate (42%, as opposed to 39%)” (p. 125)
6) Regarding faith based efforts: The April 2009 report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Crime and Criminal Justice Costs: Implications in Washington State, notes that of the five faith-based programs they examined there was a zero percent change in crime outcomes, also noting that there were “too few evaluations to date.” p. 188 (p.19 in pdf file)
7) Another example of making things worse comes from Florida State University’s L. Fairhurst(2006) commenting on Mears, D. P., Roman, C. G., Wolff, A., & Buck, J., Faith-based efforts to improve prisoner reentry: Assessing the logic and evidence, Journal of Criminal Justice, 2006 August, Vol. 34 Iss. 4, pp. 351-367.
“The fundamental flaw in all the studies: the absence of a clear, consistent operational definition of “faith-based.” Is it, for example, nonprofit organizations with religious affiliations delivering secular services such as vocational and drug counseling—or is it individual faith volunteers conducting Bible classes with prisoners? Furthermore, where gains were declared, it was unclear which practices or combinations of secular and religious components generated them.
“Regardless of the definitions and measurements used and the manner in which findings were presented, the review found few studies that had generated data credible enough to justify public support—or outright rejection—of faith-based programming.
“As an example, Mears cites the Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by Charles Colson, the former Nixon aide who became a born-again Christian while imprisoned for his part in the Watergate scandal. Colson has touted the success of his ministries based on studies that show lower recidivism rates among participants. However, Mears noted that the studies focused only on inmates who completed the program, while comparing its recidivism rates to those of all participants—including dropouts—of selected secular programs.
“In fact, if recidivism rates in Colson’s programs were revised to include all participants, “graduates” or not, results would be worse than those for the comparison groups. Where successes might be construed to exist, it’s unclear what to credit—the computer and life skills classes or its fundamentalist Christian doctrine. Where recidivism increases among its program participants, did faith-based programming play a part by leading some inmates to believe that ultimate responsibility for their actions lies with God, not them? Like arguments that faith-based programs decrease recidivism, this possibility remains to be demonstrated empirically.” FSU News: Faith-based prison programs claim to reduce recidivism, but there’s little evidence, says FSU research. L. Fairhurst (2006)
8) A recent community program designed to reduce crime, has apparently increased it, as this Rand Report indicates.
An excerpt from the Rand Research Brief.
“One Vision work is performed by an executive director, a program director, five area managers, and more than 40 community coordinators, and supported by a data manager. Most staff members were raised in and therefore are intimate with inner-city street life and the “code of the street.
“RAND Corporation and Michigan State University researchers assessed the effects of the program in three areas of Pittsburgh: Northside, the Hill District, and Southside….
“The researchers measured changes in homicide, aggravated assaults, and gun assaults before and after the intervention, controlling for neighborhood attributes, seasonal effects, and trends over time. Rather than finding that One Vision was associated with a measurable reduction in violence, they found the program to have no effect on homicide rates and to be associated with increases in aggravated assaults and gun assaults in all three areas.”
(9) Scared Straight Programs
These programs, designed to prevent delinquency, which were clearly debunked in the past, are attempting a comeback, but the research is clear, they are a failure and actually make the situation worse, as this meta-evaluation reveals “Scared Straight” and Other Juvenile Awareness Programs for Preventing Juvenile Delinquency (Last Updated, April 2004) By Anthony Petrosino, Carolyn Turpin Petrosino, John Buehler (p. 6)[at the jump type “scared straight” into the search panel for the report]
“Programs like ‘Scared Straight’ involve organized visits to prison facilities by juvenile delinquents or children at risk for becoming delinquent. The programs are designed to deter participants from future offending by providing first-hand observations of prison life and interaction with adult inmates. Results of this review indicate that not only does it fail to deter crime but it actually leads to more offending behavior. Government officials permitting this program need to adopt rigorous evaluation to ensure that they are not causing more harm to the very citizens they pledge to protect.”
(10) London, England’s Diamond Initiative Program
England produces another in a long line of programs designed by public leadership in America and abroad, which actually increases recidivism among the participants rather than reducing it, as reported by the London Evening Standard.
“A flagship Met police scheme to cut crime among convicts freed from jail has had no impact on the reoffending rate, an official study revealed today.
“The £11 million “Diamond Initiative” was set up to rehabilitate serial offenders by offering them help with problems such as drug and alcohol misuse, housing, debt and unemployment after their release.
“Scotland Yard chiefs hoped that the scheme, which focused on criminals freed after sentences of 12 months or less, would lead to a significant drop in reoffending and help to deliver the “rehabilitation revolution” wanted by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.
“An official analysis of the project has found, however, that 42.4 per cent of participants committed new crimes within a year of leaving jail – almost identical to the 41.6 per cent reoffending rate among a similar group of convicts who received no special help after being freed….
“In all, a total of 556 crimes were committed by 156 of the offenders asked to join the Diamond scheme. That compares with the 446 offences committed by 136 criminals among the similarly sized “control” sample of freed convicts.”