Advocates insist offender rehabilitation programs work–Are they right?

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I spent most of my professional life in law enforcement as a cop and then as the senior specialist for crime prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and then as the director of information management for the National Crime Prevention Council.

When I became the director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety (a combined law enforcement and correctional agency) I was introduced to advocates who told me that programs for offenders worked to reduce recidivism.

They were well-educated and passionate people who insisted that the state needed to do more to help people reenter from prison and to successfully complete parole and probation. The governor’s office wanted an end to escalating correctional budgets. Other parts of the justice system complained that corrections took too much of available funds.

So I started asking questions of our five correctional agency heads. “Why weren’t we doing more to rehabilitate criminal offenders,” I asked. “Because the programs touted by advocates are flawed,” they said. “They don’t reduce recidivism.”

Nothing Works

Robert Magnus Martinson was an American sociologist, whose 1974 study “What Works?”, concerning the shortcomings of existing prisoner rehabilitation programs, was highly influential, creating what became known as the “nothing works” doctrine. His later studies were more optimistic, but less influential at the time. He served as chairman of the Sociology Department at the City College of New York, and then founded the Center for Knowledge in Criminal Justice Planning.

Martinson’s proclamation was startling and stalled interest in providing programs for offenders. “If nothing works, why spend the money,” asked legislators throughout the country. Yet the advocates were undeterred, insisting that programs that didn’t work were fundamentally flawed or not properly implemented.

Throughout the decades since Martinson, advocates kept insisting that educational, vocational and related programs were powerful tools to assist people in and out of prison. If programs didn’t work well, that was the fault of administrators or they were not properly funded or implementation was faulty.

Now we have another review of the literature (over 600 evaluations) funded by the National Institute of Justice of the US Department of Justice stating that most rehabilitation programs don’t work.

Some Programs Work–Most Don’t

Per The National Institute of Justice: “There were no statistically significant reductions in recidivism found for other types of rehabilitation programs such as:

  • work-related programs,
  • academic programs,
  • supportive residential programs,
  • intensive supervision (such as reduced probation or parole caseloads),
  • multimodal/mixed treatments (such as individual case management),
  • and restorative interventions.”

“Programs that included:

  • group work (structured via protocol or psychoeducational content),
  • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or CBT-like components,
  • counseling,
  • or that used drug court or other specialized court models

were associated with a statistically significant reduction in recidivism.”

Even when programs worked, the average reduction was only twenty percent. While a twenty percent reduction is progress and something to build on, it still means that the vast majority of program participants return to the justice system through arrest, prosecution, or incarceration.

Multiple decades after Martin’s proclamation that “nothing works, we have a Department of Justice funded review stating that very little works and when it does, nothing works well, Rehabilitation Programs.

Yet ask the average advocate if programs work to significantly reduce recidivism, they will tell you that they do.

Examples of Misrepensations

Most of the programs below promised enhanced results that would not threaten public safety. Some involved public misrepresentations.

Oregon: About 35 percent of people found criminally insane in Oregon and then let out of supervised psychiatric treatment were charged with new crimes within three years of being freed by state officials. Between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2015, the state freed 220 defendants who had been acquitted of felonies because they could not tell right from wrong or control their actions.

About a quarter of them, or 51 people, were charged with attacking others within three years. Twenty-five were charged with lesser crimes. Eighteen others were charged more than three years later, including 12 people for violent incidents. They were charged with felonies about as often as people freed after serving prison terms — both 16 percent — according to our analysis and the Oregon Department of Corrections.

On its website, the board assures Oregonians that repeat offenses by people it supervises are exceedingly rare events, with only 0.46 percent of defendants committing new crimes each year, ProPublica.

Chicago Bail: The Bail Project and a second nonprofit — the Chicago Community Bond Fund — have paid to release nearly 1,000 pretrial defendants from Cook County Jail, the Chicago Tribune reports. The groups are part of nationwide efforts to eliminate cash bail as a condition of pretrial release and ensure poor people are not jailed for criminal charges because they cannot afford bond.

The charities contend that the risk to public safety of releasing pretrial detainees is minimal. Many defendants they bailed out were charged with misdemeanors, and the two groups say they have near universal success helping released defendants stay out of trouble.

Yet the newspaper identified 162 people charged with felonies whom the charities have bailed out since February 2017. Among them were three people charged with murder, 10 accused of attempted murder, 32 felons allegedly caught carrying a gun and 22 defendants charged with being an armed habitual criminal. More than a fifth of these 162 defendants went on to be charged with new crimes while out on charity-sponsored bond, Chicago Tribune.

Maryland: Across Maryland, dozens of inmates convicted of violent crimes — carjackings, shootings and attempted murder — are using a state law intended to help addicted offenders get drug treatment to win early release, sometimes years before they are eligible for parole. Now some officials are objecting.

In the last fiscal year, 152 people convicted of violent crimes were released early through the program. The offenders are supposed to remain in treatment for up to a year, and then released under state supervision. In the past five months, 47 of 164 individuals placed into treatment facilities went missing. Prosecutors cite a litany of violent convicts, including an armed carjacker that left his victim bloodied and a young man who beat a homeless man in a “vicious assault,” who were allowed to leave prison for treatment, Baltimore Sun.

Virginia: Virginia claims the lowest rate of recidivism in the country but their practices, based on discredited programs, make this claim doubtful, Virginia.

Council Of State Governments: There is a report that offers reductions in recidivism from eleven states, CSG Justice Center. Most cited strategies have little documentation as to reducing recidivism. They cite the Second Chance Act, a bipartisan bill Congress passed ten years ago, that supported some of these efforts to improve outcomes. The problem is that the Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act evaluation showed no reduction in recidivism, Most evaluations, when there are reductions, cite small declines of less than ten percent. It highlights seven states in which recidivism decreased according to several measures. But if you look closely, the data is filled with massive flaws, see Council of State Governments.

Hawaii’s Project Hope: Project Hope was touted as a wonderfully effective program for supervising offenders in the community. A study in Criminology & Public Policy concludes that neither Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (Hawaii HOPE) program, nor the Swift, Certain and Fair (SCF) model of supervision achieved significant reductions in re-arrests of “moderate to high-risk probationers,” compared to standard probation programs.

In the study, Outcome Findings from the HOPE Demonstration Field Experiment, the authors randomly assigned more than 1,500 probationers to normal probation supervision or to a program modeled on HOPE, called the Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, that emphasizes close monitoring, frequent drug testing, and swift and certain punishment for probation violations. They found no real difference in outcomes. See Project Hope.

Cut 50 Percent Of The Inmate Population: There are endless advocates who are calling for a 50 percent cut in the prison population (Influence Watch). They insist that it will not have an impact on crime and victimization. But the data says otherwise.

“The most common understanding of recidivism is based state data from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, stating that two-thirds (68 percent) of prisoners released were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.”

“Within 3 years of release, 49.7% of inmates either had an arrest that resulted in a conviction with a disposition of a prison sentence or were returned to prison without a new conviction because they violated a technical condition of their release, as did 55.1% of inmates within 5 years of release,” Offender Recidivism.

When considering that most crime is not reported, and most reported crime is not solved, and that prosecutors routinely dismiss 20-30 percent of cases, we understand that the above numbers are undercounts.

The Impact of Incarceration Demonized

There are endless advocates who will tell you that incarceration has no impact on future recidivism.

There is data from the US Sentencing Commission stating that longer sentences create significantly less recidivism. In the two models with the larger sample sizes, offenders incarcerated for more than 120 months were approximately 30 percent less likely to recidivate relative to a comparison group receiving less incarceration.

In the third model, offenders incarcerated for more than 120 months were approximately 45 percent less likely to recidivate relative to a comparison group receiving less incarceration. Specifically, offenders incarcerated for more than 60 months up to 120 months were approximately 17 percent less likely to recidivate relative to a comparison group sentenced to a shorter period of incarceration, US Sentencing Commission.

Lack Of Support for Rehabilitation Programs

The data seems consistent; only a small percentage of offenders in jails or prisons or parole and probation programs have access to well-designed and supported, individually based programs. Regardless of criteria, most do not have access to any programs at all beyond those run by clergy or volunteers (AA-NA).

In a day and age where governors are complaining that “corrections” take way too much of state budgets, if programs were as effective as advocates make them out to be, you would think that state executives would be funding anything that reduces the fiscal or criminological impact.

Why are programs so underfunded? Because most believe that they either don’t work or that the impacts, regardless of statistical significance, are not large enough to be worthy of consideration.

The second reason is that the rate of return to the justice system per new arrests and incarcerations is very high, Recidivism.

The Philidelphia Inquirer offered a series of articles claiming that parole and probation was overly harsh with endless sanctions based on technical violations, Offender Accountability But there is national data stating that virtually all offenders revoked were involved in a new crime beyond violations of parole and probation supervision, Technical Violations. Why would it be different for the state of Pennslyvania?”

“Almost all prisoners who were re-arrested (96% of released sex offenders and 99% of all released offenders) were arrested for an offense other than a probation or parole violation,” BJS.


There are many additional examples of failed programs including two landmark studies from The US Department of Justice (Serious And Violent Offender, Second Chance Act) that showed no reductions in recidivism, Nothing Works. Additional studies offer the same conclusion or the reductions were small, ten percent or less.

It’s not my intent to be disparaging of all programs or criminal justice reform. Most of us support change with the goal to make sure that the most dangerous offenders are incapacitated for an appropriate amount of time. Legalization or decriminalization of marijuana or longer sentences from rural areas or shortening the length of parole and probation supervision are three examples of issues that need examination. There are others.

I interviewed hundreds of former offenders for television and radio shows who were doing well. Many stated that programs helped them succeed.

Programs also offer a sense of sanity within correctional facilities. They make prisons safer for everyone. They provide a sense of hope to offenders. For these reasons alone, programs should be considered. This is more important to institutional and employee safety than most realize. If you care about correctional employee well-being, you support programs.

And there is nothing wrong with a humanitarian approach to programs, just don’t advertise them as crime reduction ventures.

But we must do better as to figuring out the best modalities. We need a national commission and a massive series of evaluations. There is a possibility of protecting citizens from criminal victimization and saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Why this isn’t a top priority for the country is confounding and is probably based on the over-promises as to program effectiveness.

And publications offering daily or frequent summations of crime and justice information need to review and report on all evaluations and research, not just those that fit their preconceived notions. We desperately need objectivity, not advocacy.

During my thirty-five-year media relations career for national and state criminal justice agencies, discussions as to statistics and programs were common. Most of us understood that the misrepresentation of data was public relations suicide. Trustworthiness and objectivity were necessary components of a good public and media relations strategy.

Throughout my career and collegiate studies, I was told that transparency was vital to gain the trust of citizens, reporters, and funding sources.

Has that changed?

Read More

See more articles on crime and justice at Crime in America.

Most Dangerous Cities/States/Countries at Most Dangerous Cities.

US Crime Rates at Nationwide Crime Rates.

National Offender Recidivism Rates at Offender Recidivism.

About Leonard Sipes

Sipes operates Crime in America.Net, and the RSS feed ( provides subscribers with a means to stay informed about the latest news, publications and other announcements from the site.

His book based on thirty-five years of criminal justice public relations, “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization” available at Amazon. Reviews are appreciated.

Leonard Sipes

Leonard Sipes

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. Aspiring drummer.Contact: [email protected]

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