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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

September 27, 2010

"Nothing Works" in Reducing Recidivism is False

In the mid 1970’s, a summary of 231 studies of correctional programs were reviewed and evaluated based on their effectiveness in reducing criminal recidivism. The ultimate conclusion of the researchers was that “nothing works” in reducing recidivism of offenders.[i] Other researchers have criticized these reviews and conclusions. The conclusion that “nothing works” to reduce recidivism probably wasn’t true back in the 1975, and is certainly not true today.

One group of researchers argued that the Martinson review cited above, demonstrated knowledge destruction as the conclusions were simply not empirically based. However, at the time, the Martinson conclusions were politically acceptable from both ends of the political spectrum. Researchers now argue that the empirical research had identified programs that work to reduce recidivism then, and the research has identified programs that work now.[ii]

Recently, there have been several comprehensive meta-analyses and analytical reviews of the literature to attempt to identify correctional programs that are effective in reducing recidivism and those that are cost effective. Of course, the goal is to use the effective programs and eliminate the ineffective programs.[iii]

I will discuss some of the findings of what works in corrections to reduce recidivism. I will warn anyone that is looking for a silver bullet program that is going to reduce recidivism by close to 100%, that these programs don’t exist. Recidivism reduction in the 10% to 15% range compared to control groups is on the high end. The question is do the benefits of the programs outweigh the costs.

Throughout the treatment literature, one principal stands out. To increase the efficacy of any treatment modality, one first needs to identify the group of offenders at highest risk to re-offend, identify the criminologic factors of those high-risk offenders that contribute to their offending, and then design treatment to address those factors. Treatment resources should not be wasted on offenders with a low risk to re-offend or those lacking the problems that the treatment modality is designed to meet.[iv]

Vocational education of offenders with job placement was shown by all three groups of researchers to reduce recidivism. According to Drake et al (2009), recidivism is reduced about 10% with vocational education in prison, and it provides the greatest return on investment of any program. Job placement increases the effectiveness of vocational training by about three-fold.[v]

Adult basic education again has been shown to reduce recidivism. Andrews and Bonta (2010) and Drake et al (2009) both concluded that adult basic education reduced recidivism. MacKenzie (2006) found adult basic education to be promising. Drake (2009) estimated a reduction in recidivism by 8.6% from adult basic education.

Working in correctional industries in prison has also been shown to have a positive effect on reducing recidivism. Andrews and Bonta (2010) did not address correctional industries. The other two research groups found that work in correctional industries was effective in reducing recidivism. Drake (2009) estimated that correctional industries reduced recidivism by 6.4% over nonparticipants.

The above examples show that educational programs and work programs have been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism. I will discuss more structured correctional treatment in my next entry.



[i] Martinson, R. (1974). “What Works—Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.” The Public Interest, 35, 22-54; Lipton, D., R. Martinson & J. Wilks (1975) The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment: A Survey of Treatment Evaluation Studies.New York: Praeger.

[ii] Andrews, D.A. and James Bonta, 2010, The Psychology of Criminal Conduct 5th Ed., New Jersey, Matthew Bender, p. 351-356.

[iii] Ibid; MacKenzie, Doris Layton (2006), What works in Corrections-Reducing the Criminal Activities of Offenders and Delinquents, New York, Cambridge University Press; Drake, Elizabeth K. Steve Aos and Marna G. Miller, 2009, “Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Crime and Criminal Justice Costs: Implications in Washington State” Victims and Offenders, 4:170-196; Aos, Steve, Marna Miller, and Elizabeth Drake, (2006). “Evidence-Based Adult Corrections Programs: What Works and What Does Not.” Olympia:Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

[iv] Ibid ii above, p. 111 and chapter 12.

[v] Ibid, p. 265.

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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