Are Offender Rehabilitation Programs Dead?


Are Offender Rehabilitation Programs Dead?

Has “nothing works” been replaced by “nothing works well?”

With new data from the Department of Justice regarding a signature program, it seems that rehabilitation or reentry programs for offenders are on life support.

Are we misleading the American public about the impact of rehabilitation programs?

I support programs for offenders. I have repeatedly asked if society wants people coming out of prison to be free of mental health and substance abuse issues.

But with new data from the Department of Justice regarding a signature program, it seems that offender efforts are on life support.

We need a research initiative similar to cancer. It should be a national priority.

But for the moment, the collective data indicate that programs for offenders either don’t work, or make things worse, or have very limited results. This analysis does not include diversion efforts.

Second Chance Evaluation

An Evaluation Of Seven Second Chance Act Adult Demonstration Programs: Impact Findings At 18 Months, describes the impacts of seven programs that were awarded grants under the Second Chance Act to reduce recidivism by addressing the challenges faced by adults after incarceration.

The summation of findings (with minor edits for brevity) is not encouraging:

The study measured recidivism as involvement with the criminal justice system in the 18 months after that led to re-arrest, reconviction, or re-incarceration. As of 18 months after random assignment, increased access to services for participants did not lead to increased desistance.

Whether recidivism was measured using survey or administrative data, those in the program group were not less likely than those in the control group to be re-arrested, reconvicted, or re-incarcerated; their time to re-arrest or reincarceration was no shorter; and they did not have fewer total days incarcerated (including time in both prisons and jails).

There is some evidence that those in the program group were somewhat more likely to be convicted of a new crime or have probation or parole revoked… see Second Chance Act.

I understand that some will imply that treatment efforts didn’t go far enough to address multiple symptoms, and it’s only seven programs at 18 months, but it’s not just this research. Collectively, the data over time indicate that programs simply don’t work for the vast majority of offenders.

Additional Data:

The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) was the federal government’s other signature effort using evidence-based tactics and programs to reduce recidivism. It showed few (if any) positive results.

Go to the federal government’s Crime Solutions.Gov database and plug in “recidivism.” There are few prison or parole and probation efforts marked as “effective,” see

Per a survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, money for treatment for probation caseloads is almost nonexistent. It was 1 percent in 2005. It was 1 percent in 2015. That’s not to say that some probationers don’t get treatment, but if they do, it comes from external sources, see Crime in America-Probation.

I cannot remember any US Department of Justice data indicating that programs for offenders in prison or parole and probation that rose above ten percent. Most offered results much less than ten percent in recidivism.

When programs are offered to offenders, some work, some don’t and some make things worse. When they do work, the results are generally small, see Crime in America-Nothing Works Well.

There is no indication that the massive caseload ratios of parole and probation agents have been reduced. 100-200 offenders to every parole and probation agent ratios are not unusual.

I am unaware of any data stating that the use of risk instruments to select the “real” threats to public safety is any better than flipping a coin. Risk instruments are the heart and soul of caseload management.

If 77 percent of offenders released from prison are rearrested, and we all understand that this is an undercount due to underreporting of crimes, and the fact that two out of every five reported crimes are solved, and a significant number are not prosecuted, then how are we to evaluate claims of reduced recidivism? See Crime in America-Rearrests.

Recidivism-Most Released From Prison Go Back to Prison

The most common understanding of recidivism is based on 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 percent 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 percent of inmates within 5 years of release, see Crime in America-Recidivism.

Thus when jurisdictions claim massive reductions in recidivism, we tend to compare their claims to this (and other) data and shake our heads.

There Are Claims of Reduced Recidivism


Jurisdictions have claimed massive reductions in recidivism (up to 50 percent) only to back away from those assertions when placed under scrutiny. An example is Virginia using incredibly flawed data.

Virginia compared inmate recidivism rates across the country and guess who came out on top? Virginia! 

Virginia’s claims are either hogwash or they should be awarded the Nobel Prize. See Virginia Recidivism.

Other States

“Reducing Recidivism” was recently offered by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.

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.


There is much more I could bring to the table, like the additional data offered by Crime Soultions.Gov from the Department of Justice indicating that most rehabilitation programs don’t work, see Crime in America.

As stated in the beginning, I reassert my support for programs for offenders. We must have something beyond incarceration to manage the offender population. Our collective values call for improvements.

Sentencing reform will never dip into the violent and multi-repeat felon categories (the vast majority of the prison population). There are other aspects of sentencing reform that I support (i.e., the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana), but in this article, we are addressing serious criminality.

There needs to be an immediate call for a national conference on programs for offenders to examine why the results are so disappointing. We need to do better. Cancer results were small in the past but we kept trying, and data now indicate some improvement (i.e., the remarkable improvement in deaths from breast cancer).

But until we figure out why programs for offenders have questionable value, we need to be skeptical of those claiming success.

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking 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. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.

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