The increased focus on policing through the development and expansion of the broken-windows concept of law enforcement and sanctions through three-strikes sentencing, has resulted in a significant decrease in crime rates in the jurisdictions where they have been used, adding to the safety of the public square.
With the proposal to develop alternatives to incarceration, which this article reports, that success may be in jeopardy as the alternatives sound like the same methods that have been tested and found wanting, as scholars have found that traditional rehabilitation programs that have been in use for the past several decades—including the more recent faith-based efforts—have a 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under controlled research conditions, those effects tend to decline rapidly soon after criminal justice supervision is withdrawn.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, Cheryachukin, Davis, Dauphinee, Hope, & Gehi (2005) regarding Project Greenlight, a well-funded and closely evaluated—rare for the field—reentry effort that failed spectacularly:
“Contrary to the expectations of program planners and research staff alike, Greenlight participants recidivated at higher rates than either of the comparison groups after one year postrelease.
“Most of these differences were statistically significant and held across multiple measures of recidivism, including new arrests, new felony arrests, and revocation. Assignment to the Greenlight group remained significant in multivariate models. The Upstate group, which received no pre-release reentry programming, recidivated at the lowest rate.”
Smoothing the Path From Prison to Home: An Evaluation of the Project Greenlight Transitional Services Demonstration Program, Vera Institute of Justice, New York (Executive Summary)
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):
“Unfortunately, as presently operated, the in-prison substance abuse treatment programs managed by the Office of Substance Abuse Programs are ineffective at reducing recidivism and in that regard represent both a waste of money and a missed opportunity to change lives. Numerous university studies of the programs over the past nine years consistently show little or no difference in recidivism rates between participants of the in-prison programs and inmates who received no substance abuse treatment. In fact, a five-year university of California, Los Angeles study of the two largest in-prison programs found that the 12-month recidivism rate for inmates who had received in-prison treatment was slightly higher than that of a nonparticipating control group.” (2007. Special review into in-prison substance abuse programs managed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Sacramento, California. State Printing Office. p. 1)
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 who have had no lived, experiential knowledge of the population whose lives they are attempting to change.
The substantial front-end success of broken-windows policing and three-strikes sentencing 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 efforts with the traditional rehabilitative back-end often increase the sense of alienation and a deeper commitment to the criminal world.
Our work at the LampStand Foundation offers an optional approach for criminal rehabilitation based on programs developed and managed by reformed criminals with graduate degrees and training in the social teaching of the Church; giving them—in conjunction with their experiential knowledge as former criminals—a base of deep knowledge from which to successfully reform other criminals through transformative relational work.