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Community rehabilitation schemes have no impact on reoffending rates

John recently published an article about his (failed) attempts to get solid statistical information on reoffending rates from several prize winning community rehabilitation schemes. He expected that prize winning schemes had the highest liklihood of having clear statitsical unformation regarding their success. He was mistaken.

In this follow up article, I take a step back and look at the bigger picture, looking at the information available on these schemes from the 1980's to present day. It has been found that the Home Office implements policy based on little solid evidence, that they draw false conclusions from the evidence that is available, and that a number of eminent criminologists have reported this to the Home Office - yet still the schemes are expanding. Little objective or statistically significant evidence is found that show community based schemes reduce reoffending rates - in fact there is evidence to the contrary. Whilst it is most likely true that some community based schemes do reduce reoffending, I cannot find any evidence to support this. Also, one must not forget that no community based scheme may offer the cast-iron guarantee that criminals will not reoffend whilst on the program, as prison does.

During the 1980s, community rehabilitation sentences were revived - often associated with animosity to prison. The acknowledged failure to rehabilitate prison inmates led some to oppose the use of prison altogether. They criticised overcrowding, inhumane conditions and argued that prison made matters worse - mixing with other criminals meant it was a ‘school of crime’, and the stigma made it harder to find a job on release. This view is still evident today.

Cognitive-behavioural approaches in the 1980’s and 90’s
During the 1980s and early 90s, the chief defenders of community rehabilitation were the Canadians, although they had significant backing from some American academics. The term ‘what works’ was adopted as the "umbrella" title for the new movement. Typically, ‘what works’ programmes used cognitive-behavioural approaches, which seek to modify "negative thought processes" - thought to be at the root of crime. These programmes tended to last for a fixed period of time, and operate on a medical treatment model, involving a fixed ‘dose’ of treatment leading to a ‘cure’. Examples of ‘what works’ programmes include Reasoning and Rehabilitation, the Enhanced Thinking Skills (ETS) course and ‘anger management’ courses.

The mood in the 80’s influenced the British government, as reflected in the consultation document, Punishment, Custody and the Community. It was followed in 1990 by the white paper, Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public [1], which led to the 1991 Criminal Justice Act. During this period the prison population was deliberately reduced. However, towards the end of 1993, the policy towards prison was reversed.

In 1998, in the preface to a major review of programme evaluations, the Chief Inspector of Probation, Sir Graham Smith, noted [2]:

"This is the most important foreword that I have ever written. The evidence drawn on in this report, states at its simplest that certain community programmes involving the same population significantly out-perform custodial sentences in reducing offending. Further, we now know or at least have a beginning understanding of what makes those programmes so successful."

He continued:

"The report offers the probation service and its many valued partners an opportunity to renew and revitalise community penalties and in increasing their effectiveness, enhance public protection and reduce offending.The principles that underpin these strategies are presented in this report. They will not be easy to achieve and the implementation phase will require long-term commitment, endurance and dedication. But the rewards will be immense in terms of increased confidence and public belief in and support for community sanctions."

But, when the Home Affairs Select Committee investigated community rehabilitation programmes in 1998, responding to this review, it concluded that [3]:

"The absence of rigorous assessment of the effectiveness of community sentences is astonishing. Without it confidence in them must be limited and sentencing policy a matter of guess- work and optimism."

The standard of evaluation in England and Wales was very low. In the report prefaced by Sir Graham Smith above, Andrew Underdown stated that out of 210 programme evaluations, only 11 met the evaluation criteria in the ‘best practice’ guidelines. In response, the eminent criminologist Professor Ken Pease, said to the Home Affairs Select Committee:

"I applaud any attempt by the Probation Service or anyone else to do what they do better. However, I think Andrew Underdown ... is admirably clear in showing how dire the level of programme evaluation is in probation. "

In his evidence, he pointed out that
* 22 per cent of services did not notify Mr Underdown of any evaluated schemes.
* Of the 210 schemes notified, only 109 claimed to include reconviction data.
* Of the 109 programmes claiming evaluation with reconviction, 22 had done no evaluation, and in others the results of evaluation were not yet available, leaving only 50 worth further scrutiny.
* Of the 50, 15 were excluded because of poor data or for being too close to the programme start.
* Of the remainder, only 3 used reconviction periods recommended by the Home Office.

He concluded that

"Only a handful of schemes merit serious consideration as evaluations. Of those which do, none seems, even at face value, to be remotely close to outperforming expectations to an extent which would offset the direct incapacitation effect of prison"

An example of the type of study carried out was a Swindon Probation Service study. The report followed 15 offenders treated under the Reasoning and Rehabilitation (R&R) programme and a control group of 14 offenders, who were offered an intensive job search service, but not R&R. After 6 months, 21% of the control group were reconvicted and 13% of the R&R group. After 12 months, 64% of the comparison group and 38% of the R&R group had been reconvicted. However, the results were based on unofficia data collected by probation staff and no information was given about how comparible the two groups are. Furthermore, with such a small sample size, the scale of the study does not allow an objective observer to draw any firm conclusions. [4]

It appears the caveat "certain", contained in the preface written by Sir Graham Smith, was an important one.

However, ‘what works’ programmes did, in theory, have a number of clear advantages over prison-based rehabilitation. For example, the weekly cost seemed low compared to many other interventions. In 2002 the Social Exclusion Unit estimated the cost of an ETS course of 40 hours to be £2,000 per prisoner and a course for a high risk, violent offender to be £6,000. At the time the average cost of a prison place for 12 months was £37,500.

However, a Audit Commission report accepted that the weekly costs of ‘intermediate treatment’ (as it was called) were lower than those for custody, but pointed out that the greater length of time involved in community treatments brought the total cost to the same level. The Audit Commission concluded [5]:

"Community interventions are not, in fact, a cheap alternative to custody."

The first scientifically valid evaluation in England and Wales, was carried out by Mid-Glamorgan probation service [6]. Raynor and Vanstone compared 59 offenders who completed the Straight Thinking on Probation Programme (STOP), with 100 offenders referred to other probation options who were judged to have a similar risk of reoffending. Results from the 12-month follow up showed that those on STOP had a rate of reconviction of 8% lower than their expected rates (39% as opposed to 47%). The reconviction rate of the other probationers was equivalent to their expected rate. However, the effect diminished after two years: those on STOP had a rate of reconviction of 68 per cent - statistically similar to the rate of the comparison group. In addition, there are methodological doubts about the study. There was a very high drop-out rate within the STOP group. Thirty-eight per cent of the original group dropped out before completion. These were not taken into account in the final analysis and could have produced a biased result [4].

Despite the worrying lack of rigerous evidence, and underestimates of cost, a major programme was introduced and in 2000/01- 6,000 offenders were put through accredited courses. In 2003/04 the Prison Service target was 8,900 and the Probation Service 30,000 in the community.

Cognitive Skills Courses
Cognitive skills courses were first introduced in England and Wales in 1992 and have been stepped up under the Blair Government. They are based on the idea that criminals carry out crimes because of mistaken beliefs. They might tell themselves that no one gets hurt (they are all insured) or interpret innocent actions as aggressive (‘what are you looking at’ if you catch their eye in the street) or they may simply be unable to put themselves in other people’s shoes. Psychologists claim to know how to alter these attitudes and the Home Office has been increasing the number of offending behaviour programmes inspired by these theories.

Three evaluations have been published by the Home Office. The first claimed that the courses were effective [7]. The first bullet point says:

"Reconviction fell considerably after cognitive skills treatment. For example, two-year reconviction rates for treatment groups were up to 14 percentage points lower than matched comparison groups.’

The report claims that this represents 21,000 crimes prevented. However, a closer look reveals that cognitive-behavioural treatment made no real difference. It turns out that the 14% reduction was for those classified as 'medium-low' risk. There were four groups: low risk of conviction, medium-low, medium-high and high. But if you add up the reconvictions for all four groups, the rate is 44%. If you compare this proportion with the control group, the overall reconviction rate of the treatment group was worse than that of the control group (44% compared with 40%).

Perhaps the treatment works well with medium-low risk offenders and not with high-risk offenders, in which case it would be legitimate to break the treatment group into such categories. However, in a separate publication, the same Home Office researchers concluded [8]

"that treatment impacts on reconviction rates despite the offenders' prior level of risk of reconviction."

In other words, there was no apparent justification for breaking the sample down into groups.

Two subsequent Home Office publications in 2003 acknowledge that the schemes failed. The summary of the July 2003 report states [9]:

This evaluation found no differences in the two-year reconviction rates for prisoners who had participated in a cognitive skills programme between 1996–1998 and a matched comparison group. This contrasts with the reduction in reconviction shown in the previous evaluation of cognitive skills programmes for prisoners, delivered between 1992–1996."

One more recent scheme - the Prison Service’s internally devised Sex Offender’s Treatment Programme (SOTP) - appears also to have problems. In an evaluation report published in 2004, the conclusion states [10]:

"The evidence from rigorously conducted reconviction studies suggests that we are unlikely to see a major impact on reoffending rates, as promised by the ‘What Works?’ literature."

They go on:

"the studies cited above appear to show some short-term impact which ‘decays’ into no difference in reconviction over two years."

The UK evidence so far is that community rehabilitation based on cognitive skills has not worked. Despite the overwhelming evidence that community based behavioural management schemes don’t offer any decrease in reoffending rates, they are still used. Whilst it is most likely true that some community based schemes do reduce reoffending, I cannot find any evidence to support this. Also, one must not forget that no community based scheme may offer the cast-iron guarantee that criminals will not reoffend whilst on the program, whereas prison does.

A significant part of this article is derived from: David G. Green, Emma Grove, Nadia A. Martin, Civitas: Crime And Civil Society
[1] Punishment, Custody and the Community (1988) White Paper Cm 424 London: HMSO.
[2] Underdown, A. (1998) Strategies for Effective Offender Supervision Report of the HMIP
What Works Project, London: Home Office.
[3] Alternatives to Prison Sentences (July 1998) Session 1997-98, 3rd Report, HC486, July para
249 - 9.
[4] Gaes, G.G., Flanagan, T.J., Motiuk, L. and Stewart, L. (1998) Adult Correctional
Treatment, p. 35-7.
[5] Misspent Youth: Young People and Crime (1996) Oxon, UK: Audit Commission, p. 111.
[6] Raynor, P. and Vanstone, M. (1996) STOP (Straight Thinking On Probation): The Mid-
Glamorgan Experiment, International Journal of Offender Therapy: Comparative
Criminology, vol. 40, pp. 272-84
[7] Friendship, C., Blud, L., Erikson, M. and Travers, R. (2002) ‘An evaluation of cognitive
behavioural treatment for prisoners’, Home Office, Findings 161.
[8] Friendship, C., Falshaw, L. and Beech, A. (2003) ‘Measuring the Real Impact of Accredited
Offending Behaviour Programmes’, Legal and Criminal Psychology, vol. 8, pp. 115-127.
[9] Falshaw, L., Friendship, C., Travers, R., and Nugent, F. (2003) ‘Searching for ‘What Works’:
an evaluation of cognitive skills programmes’, Findings 206.
[10] Simon Merrington and Steve Stanley, The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice, Vol 51(1): 7–20 (2004)

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