Many states are struggling with an increase in criminal world culture and they try taking steps that will reduce or stop that increase, but since the programs are being founded on formulas largely of government and bureaucratic design, the potency of their countervailing force is largely nil; explaining the historic evidence-based failure of traditional criminal rehabilitation programs.
Traditional rehabilitation programs have been in use for the past several decades, and include the more recent faith-based efforts. They have 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under controlled research conditions, those effects tend to decline rapidly soon after criminal justice supervision is withdrawn.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)
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 [control] 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.)
Another recent and much more costly failure in California’s prisons—$1 billion dollars since 1989—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 50-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." (pp. 1-2 italicized in original)
(Office of the Inspector General, California,(2007).
An analysis of faith-based program research in 2006, noting the results of one well-known program, 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. (Retrieved March 12, 2010 from Florida State University.
This result with Colson's programs was also found by an Ohio State Department of Rehabilitation & Correction study:
“Specifically, they found that persons who completed the in-prison and aftercare components of the IFI program had an 8% recidivism rate when compared to a 20% rate for a matched group of non-participants. However, non-completers, persons who started the program but did not complete all phases, had a higher recidivism rate (36%) than the comparison group.” (p. 3)
The one element that all of these programs share, that in my opinion led to their failure, is that they have been developed and managed by professional rehabilitation practitioners or the religiously inspired, who have had no deeply lived, experiential knowledge of the population whose lives they are attempting to change.
The one area where government has shown success is in broken-windows policing and three-strikes sentencing as more cops on the street and certain prison sentences for habitual criminals, most certainly reduces crime; but rather than changing the motivations of persons drawn to the criminal world—much of which comes from the sense of joining a family—the bureaucratic efforts instead often increase the sense of alienation and the often subsequent deeper commitment to the criminal world family.
Our work at the Lampstand Foundation offers an optional approach for criminal rehabilitation in communities.