Theories of rehabilitation

The current model of offender management is a comparatively recent innovation, dating back to the mid-2000s. It was created as part of a wider strategy to coordinate and consolidate the Prison and Probation Services, which had previously been relatively independent. In particular, the then government wanted to address a perceived problem: that it was too easy for life-sentenced prisoners (and prisoners in general) to pass their sentences without directly addressing the underlying causes of their offending. There was a reasonably strong chance of obtaining release at the end of their ‘tariff’ or minimum term, provided their behaviour was good and their case not politically controversial. The government believed it was too easy for prisoners simply to ‘pay their debt to society’ by serving time.

What is rehabilitation?

Holding lifers (and other prisoners) to a higher standard meant defining what that standard should be, and this in turn meant answering certain questions: what were the underlying causes of offending? How were they to be addressed? How was progress to be measured? In short, what is rehabilitation? Each of these questions makes for a profoundly complicated research topic on its own. There are different ways to approach them, and they are not all compatible. A full summary can’t be given here. But it is important to note that any attempt to answer these questions scientifically will require pragmatic compromises and simplifications, especially if the resulting theory is to be simple enough to become the basis of policy and practice.

The Risk-Need-Responsivity model

The model of rehabilitation that was adopted at this time was the Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) model. It was based on research by Canadian psychologists, and now forms the basis of official rehabilitative thinking in many prison systems around the world. The name comes from the three principles that the model ‘designs in’ as the basis of offender rehabilitation:
  1. Assess Risk
  2. Identify ‘criminogenic Need’ (that is, find the risk factors associated with past offending, and make them the focus of ‘treatment’)
  3. Treat need in a manner that is Responsive to the individual’s characteristics (e.g. learning style)
‘Treatment’ can take different forms, but generally consists of accredited offending behaviour programmes. Usually, these are courses ranging in length from a few weeks to a few months. Role plays and scenarios are used to provoke discussion of the ‘faulty thinking’ that might have led to offending in the past. New ways of thinking are then suggested which could replace them (see previous page for further detail).

Criticisms of RNR

RNR has had its critics, who argue that as a way of thinking about rehabilitation,it focuses excessively on the individual (rather than their environment) as the source of risk. Intuitively, this individualisation of responsibility makes sense, in the context of a theory designed to underpin the ‘treatment’ of people defined as ‘criminal’. But it also gives less attention to the ways in which crime is a product of environments. This is so because of two criminological facts, both supported by strong evidence. The first is to do with human development: the social environment where one grows up affects one’s criminal ‘propensity’ (i.e. one’s potential to commit crimes). The second is to do with the fact that crime is less likely to be committed in some social situations than in others. For example, even very prolific offenders are less likely to commit crimes in situations where there are strong controls, for example a high chance of getting caught. Conversely, some social situations are more provocative than others, and more capable of testing the self-control of even people with very low criminal propensity. RNR assumes that all risk ‘belongs’ to the individual, and that the role of professionals is to diagnose and treat it. It therefore entails unstated assumptions about what ‘rehabilitation’ is, and what should be done by whom to accomplish it. There is some evidence that these assumptions do not match what prisoners themselves think on such matters. And if there are disagreements between prisoners and the state as to the definition of ‘rehabilitation’, these may also lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.

What alternative ways of thinking about rehabilitation exist?

Another scientific theory is available to explain how people move away — or ‘desist’ —from crime. This research started in the 1990s, but has really accelerated since the mid-2000s. ‘Desistance theory’ thinks of rehabilitation not as something that professionals ‘prescribe’, but instead as something that offenders themselves ‘do’. Instead of focusing on the social and individual factors that led a person into crime, desistance research seeks to identify the social and individual factors which lead them to develop other priorities, commitments and habits, and which therefore point the way out of crime. Crucially, these ‘in’ and ‘out’ factors may not be the same. For example, someone might have developed a pattern of offending behaviour as a teen, and then started a loving, stable relationship and become a parent. This might cause their priorities to shift, so that repeated periods of imprisonment become more disruptive and painful than they were previously. Similarly, having stable legitimate employment has been shown to lessen the attraction of the larger (but riskier) material rewards involved in crime. Both factors this leads some people to hope for — and start trying to find — a different lifestyle.. There are implications for ‘rehabilitation’: as well as correcting people’s prior deficits, it may also be possible to foster future growth by building on their strengths, or by putting them in different environments. This is not always an easy process, especially for people who lack social, economic and cultural capital to support it. Change is often tentative, zig-zagging, and characterised by periods of doubt, relapse and failure. It may also involve giving up other valued commitments, for example by dropping friendships which are, on reflection, found not to be compatible with the kind of person the desister wants to become. Thus desistance also implies some reorganisation of the person’s view of themselves — what kind of person they are, the moral values they identify with, and so on.

Desistance theory and RNR compared

Asa way of thinking, desistance theory has advantages when compared with RNR. For example, it offers a much richer and more realistic account of a change process taking place over time. It also has the advantage of putting the person who is changing (not the ‘correctional’ intervention which ‘changes them’) at the heart of the model. But it also has disadvantages: the picture of rehabilitative change it paints is far more complicated, accounting for a wider range of factors influencing change, than that painted by RNR. This makes it more difficult to use in the design of official rehabilitative interventions, since there are so many factors potentially involved that it becomes difficult to evaluate the intervention’s impact. Desistance theory has also hardly been used to think about long-term imprisonment. More will be said about these matters elsewhere on this site. But for now, the key point can be made by stretching the medical metaphor a little further: sometimes, ‘treatment’ makes people better; but sometimes, they get better on their own. Arguably, we should try to understand both processes.

Photo, with thanks, by John Tecuceanu on Unsplash

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