8.5. Rehabilitation

David Carter


Although not as old as some of the older ideologies, rehabilitation is not brand new. Additionally, it is the only one of the four main ideologies that most accurately attempts to address all three goals of corrections, which are:

1. Punish the offender

2. Protect Society

3. Rehabilitate the offender.

Certainly, all four ideologies address the first two goals, punishment, and societal protection. However, the goal of rehabilitating the offender is either silent, or not addressed in retribution, deterrence, or incapacitation. This does come as a cost. As we will talk about in more detail when covering prisons and jails, there is a great paradox that is happening in our society when we heavily rely on jails and prisons. Most offenders will come out of institutions (roughly 95% of all people who enter prisons are released), and little is done to change them while they are there. This is mostly due to our attitudes towards offenders, the policies that are necessarily placed on individuals while they are locked up, and the institutions themselves. And yet, there is the expectation that these individual leaving prisons will not commit crimes in the future.

The question here is this: what have we done to change them so that they are not reoffending? Without the incorporation of some form of rehabilitation, the answer is fairly clear… Nothing. Yet, we expect it.

Rehabilitation has taken on different forms through its history in the United States. We have considered individuals out of touch with God, and so offenders needed to be penitent, in order to get right with God. One of America’s earliest prisons was designed with this in mind. The Eastern State Penitentiary, opening in 1829, included outside reflection yards; so that offenders could look up to God for penance.

To see more of this prison, visit https://www.easternstate.org/.

Reformatories were another example of how rehabilitation was viewed in the past. The reform movement tried to rehabilitate the offender through more humane treatment, to include basic education, religious services, work experience, and general reform efforts. This was done in an effort to reform individuals, thus allowing them to come back to society. The Elmira Reformatory was one of the earliest efforts of the reform ideal, and many prisons built in the United States were based on this prison. Below is a picture of Elmira.


Elmira Reformatory


Other attempts at rehabilitation included more medical approaches. In the past, offenders were viewed as sick, and in need of medical cures. This medical approach, while greatly reduced, is still used in some areas today. For example, the chemical castration of certain offenders does still occur. For example HB 2543, in Oklahoma, in September of 2018, focuses on the mandated use of medroxyprogesterone acetate as a treatment, and is required before appropriate release of convicted sex offenders.

Rehabilitation, as an ideology has had critics. This is in large part due to how it is perceived. Many have voiced an objection, as it is seen as being “soft” on offenders. This is also how it has been discounted when coupled with the fear of crime. Several examples are presented as to its ineffectiveness, and weakness to the problem of crime. Probably the most notable example of the ineffectiveness of rehabilitation came in the 1970s. In 1974, Robert Martinson provided support for many that were clambering to demonstrate that the ideas of rehabilitation were ineffective. In a review of over 230 programs, Martinson concluded that “With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been undertaken so far have had no appreciative effect on recidivism” (Martinson, 1974, p. 25). [1] This was the spark that many needed to turn toward the more punitive ideologies that we have so far discussed. However, it did help some to ask more detailed questions about why rehabilitation was not working. Additionally, it helped researchers to ask more critical questions about measurement, how to more properly evaluate rehabilitation and to understand the difference of what does not work versus what does work for offenders. These principles of effective intervention become the cornerstone of modern rehabilitation.

Understanding Risk and Needs in Rehabilitation

Today’s rehabilitative efforts do still carry punishment and societal protection as goals, but the focus of rehabilitation is on the changing of offenders behaviors so that they are not committing crimes in the future. This is done by understanding what are the items that make offenders at risk for offending. Additionally, based on the levels of risk items, some offenders are at higher risk for offending than other offenders. This includes items like prior criminal history, antisocial attitudes, antisocial (pro-criminal) friends, a lack of education, family or marital problems, a lack of job stability, substance abuse, and personality characteristics (mental health and antisocial personality). Collectively these are considered as risk factors for offending (re-offending). While we can change the number of priors someone already has, all of these other items can be addressed. These are considered as criminogenic needs. Criminogenic needs are items that when changed, can lower an individual’s risk of offending. This is a core component of Paul Gendreau’s (1996) principles of effective intervention, and are at the heart of most modern effective rehabilitation programs. [2] Additionally, thousands of offenders have been assessed on these items, which has helped to develop evidence-based rehabilitation practices. These are efforts that are based on empirical data about offenders. When these criminogenic needs are addressed, higher-risk offenders demonstrate positive reductions in their risk to offend.

Over the last 40 years, efforts to change these characteristics, in order to reduce offending have been varied. One of the most useful approaches to changing the antisocial attitudes and behaviors of offenders has come in the form of behavioral and cognitive behavioral change efforts. Cognitive behavioral change for offenders is based on the concepts that the behaviors that one exhibit can be changed by changing the thinking patterns behind (before) the behaviors are exhibited. That is (criminal) behavior is based on cognition, values, and beliefs that are learned vicariously through the interactions and observations of others. It is especially relevant since we are receiving individuals from prison, where these ideas, peers, values, and beliefs may dominate the institution. For a more detailed explanation, please see https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral.pdf.

Today, evidence-based rehabilitative efforts are now used as benchmarks when establishing programs that are seen as effective, versus ones that show little to no (or even negative) results.  Rehabilitation programs that follow these principles of effective intervention are showing that they can achieve these three goals of corrections (punishment, societal protection, and offender change). In fact, the U.S. Federal Government has a section of the National Institute of Justice devoted to these evidence-based practices, and what programs are seen as effective, promising, and not effective. This site is called “CrimeSolutions,” and can be visited at https://www.crimesolutions.gov/. This resource provides invaluable information for individuals making decisions on what works for offenders and is based on empirical studies of hundreds of different approaches.

  1. Martinson, R. (1974). What works? Questions and answers about prison reform. Public Interest 35, 22-54.
  2. Gendreau, P. (1996). Principles of effective intervention with offenders. Choosing correctional options that work: Defining the demand and evaluating the supply, 117-130, Alan T Harland, ed. -- See NCJ-158983) https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=158988


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