Rehabilitation Research Paper

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Rehabilitation is a broad but somewhat slippery concept which denotes a wide variety of interventions aimed at promoting desistance from offending, but which can also denote the symbolic restoration of an ex-offender to the status of a law-abiding citizen. This research paper presents a critical overview of the ideas, theories, and practices that have been associated with the project(s) of “offender rehabilitation.” This research paper begins with a discussion of the meaning(s) of rehabilitation in relation to those who break the law, and in relation to broader ideas about the punishment of offenders and the imposition of criminal sanctions. It then moves into a discussion of the various rationales or justifications for offender rehabilitation and some of the key ethical issues associated with rehabilitative practices. Subsequently, this research paper considers rehabilitation from an empirical perspective, addressing the thorny issue of whether rehabilitative interventions “work” and the quality of the evidence underpinning claims to effectiveness. The penultimate section analyses the “reaffirmation” of rehabilitation in light of contested ideas about developments in the social and penal spheres which have emphasized the rise of punitive and/or actuarial logics, arguing that the continuing salience of rehabilitative discourses and practices are indicative of their continuing evolution in late-modern contexts. Finally, this research paper returns to the practice sphere, and considers some possible future directions for rehabilitation, with reference to some of the contemporary challenges to the “new orthodoxy” of the RNR (risk-need-responsivity) model which has come to dominate practice in many Western jurisdictions.

What Is Rehabilitation?

Rehabilitation is something of a slippery concept, which is surprisingly difficult to pin down (Raynor and Robinson 2009, Chap. 1). General dictionary definitions tend to define rehabilitation with reference to a process of “restoration” – that is, a return to a previous (proper/desirable) condition or status. This certainly makes sense in medical contexts, where rehabilitation refers to a process of regaining or recovering physical strength or cognitive functioning. And in a general sense, we can think of the rehabilitation of offenders in terms of “restoration” – that is, returning to a former, more desirable state. However, as a number of commentators have observed, there are problems with such a conceptualization.

These include the fact that the social circumstances of some offenders are such that they have never enjoyed a “desirable” position within society to which they would wish to return, and the related observation that the rehabilitation of offenders often implies a process of improvement, by means of the acquisition of new skills, etc.

In the context of offending, rehabilitation usually implies behavioral change: the “rehabilitated offender” is generally regarded as one who has desisted from offending. And although desistance may be achieved with or without the “intervention” of professionals, programs, etc., “offender rehabilitation” commonly conjures up such images, and in much of the literature it is discussed – albeit rarely defined – in these terms. It is important to note, however, that the notion of offender rehabilitation is not confined to the behavioral realm: it also has an important symbolic dimension, although this is often neglected in the literature. Indeed, as Garland (1985) has observed, the concept of rehabilitation actually has its roots in seventeenth-century French law, where it denoted the destruction or “undoing” of a criminal conviction (see also Herzog-Evans 2011). In its fullest sense, then, offender rehabilitation implies not only behavioral change, but also the restoration of the rights of citizenship, and of reputation: or what Braithwaite (1989) has described as the “decertification of deviance.”

Rehabilitation And Punishment

In the criminal courts, sentencing decisions are guided by penal philosophies which serve to justify the sanctions imposed upon offenders. Rehabilitation (or “reform”) is one of three main consequentialist strategies, all of which seek to justify punishment or penal sanctions with reference to the desirability of their future consequences. In common with deterrence and incapacitation, rehabilitation is oriented to the goal of crime reduction, but it differs from these other consequentialist strategies in that it is usually considered in positive terms. While incapacitation involves physically restraining or removing the offender from society, and deterrence centers on emphasizing the unpleasantness of punishment, “rehabilitative punishment” seeks to reduce the likelihood of an individual reoffending by instituting changes in the offender. Cavadino and Dignan state that:

Reform (or ‘rehabilitation’) is the idea that punishment can reduce the incidence of crime by taking a form which will improve the individual offender’s character or behaviour and make him or her less likely to reoffend in future. (2007, pp. 41–42)

However, this image of rehabilitation as a positive process is somewhat controversial, especially when it comes to thinking about the means or methods of bringing about offender rehabilitation which have been deployed throughout history – and some in the present day. The fictitious Ludovico Technique featured in Anthony Burgess’s (1962) novel “A Clockwork Orange” is often held up as a particularly disturbing example of what might potentially pass as a legitimate “rehabilitative” intervention. Indeed, there is nothing in the theory of rehabilitation that guarantees fair or humane treatment, albeit that its advocates have generally seen themselves as well-intentioned “good guys.”

Sentencing with a view to achieving the rehabilitation of the offender does not imply a specific penal sanction. Although many of its contemporary advocates emphasize alternatives to incarceration (and indeed diversionary measures, particularly for juveniles) as the best prospect for achieving rehabilitation, early ideas about the reform of offenders centered on finding ways to render prisons rehabilitative. In late eighteenth-century England, the magistrate and penal reformer John Howard proposed that the morals of offenders might be corrected by subjecting them to a regime of “penitentiary discipline” characterized by solitude and silence, substantial doses of religious instruction, and the inculcation of a work ethic through enforced labor (Howard 1929 [1777]). Just a few years later, Jeremy Bentham put forward his infamous “Panopticon” design for a prison modeled on a factory, and his proposed regime centered upon the reformative effects of permanent surveillance and the productive labor of prisoners working in their cells for up to sixteen hours per day. Ever since then, opinion has been divided as to whether custodial institutions can and should aim to be “rehabilitative,” what that might mean in practice and whether it is affordable. However, it should be noted that in some European countries (e.g., Germany), “resocialization” (a term which implies the social reintegration of exprisoners) continues to be an explicit objective for the implementation of sentences of imprisonment (see Van Zyl Smit and Snacken 2009). In the twentieth century, noncustodial measures (most notably probation) developed in a variety of jurisdictions with an explicitly rehabilitative remit. In some jurisdictions, at least some noncustodial options continue to have the legal status of “alternatives to punishment,” but in others (such as England and Wales) contemporary supervisory penalties have evolved into sanctions in their own right.

Today, the idea that punishment or penal sanctions can deliver rehabilitation is contested. Indeed, rehabilitation has been theorized by some as a process that is conceptually divorced from punishment, such that rather than being conceived as an objective of a positive process of punishment, it has been conceived as an antidote to punishment (or, to be more precise, the harmful effects of the punishment process) (e.g., Cullen and Gilbert 1982; Rotman 1990). These writers argue that, while punishment may be deserved, the offender should not be unduly damaged by it, and any harm or handicap inflicted upon him or her ought to be mitigated or compensated by rehabilitative measures. According to this perspective, rehabilitation is understood as a process of undoing the harm caused by punishment, not as an objective or type of punishment or sanctioning.

Justifying Rehabilitation

For more than 200 years, rehabilitation has been advocated both as a humanitarian response to crime and as a means of bringing about the humanization (or civilization) of criminal sanctions and punishment. For example, writing in England in the late eighteenth century, John Howard developed his own ideas about the reform of offenders as an alternative to what he saw as the overly harsh and disproportionate deterrent punishments of the time, which centered upon the public rituals of hanging, whipping, and pillory as responses to the full range of offenses (Howard 1929 [1777]). More recently, writers such as Cullen and Gilbert (1982) and Rotman (1990) have continued to promote rehabilitation on similar grounds. For example, Rotman has argued that:

The rehabilitation of criminal offenders offers the criminal justice system a unique avenue of improvement [and] has enormous potential for humanizing and civilizing social reaction against crime. Modern rehabilitative policies challenge the fantasy that the dark side of society can be forgotten and that deviants can be simply packed off to prison. They propose instead to offer inmates a sound and trustworthy opportunity to remake their lives. (Rotman 1990, p. 1)

During the twentieth century, rehabilitative punishment began increasingly to be justified with reference to positivist criminologies which emphasized the role of forces (biological, psychological, or social/environmental) beyond the control of the individual in the causation of crime. Gradually the notion of the offender as a “sinner” bearing full responsibility for his or her actions came to be displaced by a view of the offender as very much like a person suffering from an illness beyond his or her control. In the context of this emerging “medical model” of crime, it followed that offenders deserved to be helped or treated, in order to remove or ameliorate the factors responsible. It was this set of assumptions which lay behind the so-called individualized treatment model of offender rehabilitation, which dominated penal policies in the USA, the UK, and elsewhere in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

One way to justify rehabilitation, then, is with reference to positivist criminologies, and the general view of offenders as victims (more or less) of forces beyond their control. Some have, however, taken this argument further, positing that there is a case to be made for rehabilitation as a right of the offender, or an obligation of the state. Cullen and Gilbert (1982), for example, have argued that where social deprivation (e.g., poverty) or other problems which society has failed to properly address (e.g., mental illness) can be shown to have played a role in crime causation, then society arguably has an obligation to help the offender to overcome such obstacles – that is, a right to receive such help or intervention as to enable him or her to avoid offending in the future. A weaker version of the “rights-based” perspective invokes the idea of rehabilitation as an antidote to punishment, considered above, and it is most commonly linked with sentences of imprisonment. If we accept that offenders have a right not be debilitated or harmed (psychologically, socially, economically, etc.) by the process of punishment, then we can justify “rehabilitative” measures as a right of offenders. It is in this spirit that Rotman (1990) advocates the provision of educational and vocational opportunities, psychological and psychiatric treatment services and the maintenance of community and family links for prisoners. He further argues that the offender’s right to rehabilitation is consistent with the full restoration of his or her civil and political rights of citizenship following release from prison. This perspective is to be found in the constitutional right to “resocialization” for (ex) prisoners which exists in some European countries (see van Zyl Smit and Snacken 2009).

Rehabilitation can also – and commonly is – justified with reference to utilitarian arguments. Utilitarianism is a philosophy which originates in the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and it essentially posits that an action is ethically or morally “right” if it produces the best overall consequences, often expressed as “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Justifying rehabilitation on utilitarian grounds therefore means emphasizing the potential benefits not just for offenders themselves, but more broadly for the communities and societies in which they live. These benefits are usually couched in terms of both maximizing the availability of useful, productive (and tax-paying) members of society, and minimizing future harm by preventing further crime and victimization (see further Raynor and Robinson 2009, Chap. 2). In contemporary discourse, these desirable outcomes are commonly described in terms of “risk management” and “public protection.”

Is It Ethical? The Darker Side Of Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation is generally represented and understood as a “force for good.” However, it is no stranger to problems and controversies. Indeed, as Ward and Maruna (2007) have pointed out, rehabilitation has – some of the time, and to some people – been considered a “dirty word.” There are, then, a number of problems and risks associated with the ideas and practices of rehabilitation, and these help to explain why it is that rehabilitation has waxed and waned in popularity across time and space.

The first risk relates specifically to rehabilitative punishment, and it concerns issues of justice, proportionality, and equity. Advocates of retributive justice and desert-based sentencing contend that sanctioning with a view to rehabilitating the offender is potentially problematic in that it can invite periods of punishment which are not commensurate with the seriousness of the offense committed. Indeed, this was one of the key criticisms which presaged the demise of the “individualized treatment model” in the 1960s and 1970s. The logic of the “treatment” approach was that individual offenders should be “treated” until such a time that they were considered (by an “expert”) to have been “cured” of their criminal tendencies. Because the amount of time or intervention could rarely be specified in advance, rehabilitative sentencing came to be associated with sentences of indeterminate length, and the empowerment of extrajudicial professionals in decision-making. This was a particular issue in the USA, where indeterminate sentencing was more common than it was elsewhere. In the early 1970s, a report prepared by the American Friends Service Committee (1971) was instrumental in exposing the ethical flaws of the treatment model, and in particular the numerous instances in which doctors, social workers, and other “experts” were empowered to make executive decisions which directly affected people’s freedom and autonomy, and which were not subject to challenge. Contemporary advocates of rehabilitation tend to accept the risks to justice posed by rehabilitative sentencing and argue that the presumed benefits of rehabilitation should not be used to justify sentences that are longer than commensurate with desert (e.g., Raynor 1997; Rotman 1990).

A second criticism of rehabilitation concerns its coercive potential and the question of whether this can ever be justified. Rotman (1990) draws a useful distinction between two models of rehabilitation – authoritarian and anthropocentric – which he sees as, respectively, authoritarian/ oppressive, and liberty-centered/humanist. Rotman himself advocates only the latter model, arguing that attempts to rehabilitate offenders should be subject to the offender’s consent and should invite the active participation of offenders in their own rehabilitation process. Others, however, argue that coercion is not inherently unethical; nor is it entirely avoidable, not least because rehabilitative programs are often a compulsory part of sentences, especially for those who are assessed as posing a high risk of harm to the public (e.g., sex offenders, violent offenders, and substance misusing offenders) (e.g., Carlen 1989; Day et al. 2004). Day et al. have further argued that a degree of coercion can be effective in both getting reluctant offenders into treatment programs and keeping them there.

Of course, whether we are prepared to accept a degree of coercion in efforts to rehabilitate offenders may well depend to a large extent on what it is that we are potentially requiring them to do. While most of us will be unlikely to object to the idea of forcing a reluctant pedophile to undertake a treatment program to reduce the likelihood of further sexual offending, we might be more inclined to object to the idea of compulsory surgical or chemical castration, or Burgess’s violent aversion therapy, mentioned above. A third criticism of rehabilitation then concerns its content, and the risk of justifying abusive and/or inhumane interventions in the name of “doing good.” Even a cursory knowledge of the history of attempts to rehabilitate offenders reveals that the practices for which “rehabilitative effects” have been claimed have included the physically demanding treadmill, through extended periods of solitary confinement, to psychosurgical and pharmacological interventions. Indeed, not all of these examples are confined to history: it is notable, for example, that the “chemical castration” of sexual offenders is currently enjoying something of a revival in a variety of jurisdictions.

A fourth problem with offender rehabilitation concerns the problems associated with making resources and “help” available to offenders, while such assistance may be unavailable to other members of society who have not offended but are experiencing similar or more extreme personal problems or socioeconomic disadvantages. This is a problem which is particularly pertinent in relation to the provision of resources such as employment training, education, and accommodation, which are sometimes referred to as “social rehabilitation” (Robinson and Crow 2009, Chap. 8). Where this occurs, rehabilitation is said to offend the principle of “less eligibility” formulated by Bentham in the eighteenth century. This principle states that those convicted of offenses should not enjoy conditions that are more favorable than those enjoyed (or perhaps endured) by the poorest independent laborer. In contemporary societies, this means that offenders should not obtain advantages over those in the lowest paid employment, who have not offended.

Does It Work? Evaluating Effectiveness

Despite the ethical concerns raised above, by far the most hotly debated issue with respect to rehabilitation – and in particular rehabilitative punishment – relates to its effectiveness in bringing about reductions in recidivism. However, concerns about “what (if anything) works” are a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 1960s, rehabilitation was a dominant penal narrative in the USA and the UK, the effectiveness of rehabilitative sanctions was widely taken for granted and little research had been undertaken to establish their impact on recidivism. It was not until the 1970s that serious doubts began to emerge about their effectiveness, and these were due in large part (though by no means entirely) to the publication of a now infamous article by Robert Martinson (1974), which summarized the findings of a review of over two hundred studies of prison- and community-based rehabilitative services to offenders. The legacy of Martinson’s article was the slogan “nothing works,” which came to dominate mainstream penal thought for years to come and dealt a severe blow to faith in the “rehabilitative ideal” (Allen 1959; Garland 2001).

Ever since then, researchers (particularly in North America) have endeavored to demonstrate that “nothing works” was a significant overstatement, and to revive at least some optimism about the potential of penal interventions to rehabilitate offenders (e.g., Palmer 1975; Gendreau and Ross 1980). Efforts to reinstate a “what works?” agenda in the 1980s were accompanied by critiques of the old “treatment model” and the theoretical assumptions which lay behind it, alongside the development of new styles of intervention designed to confront and modify “offending behavior.” The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence and proliferation of “offending behavior programs” based upon a predominantly psychological (cognitive-behavioral) model of offending (e.g., Ross et al. 1988; Hollin and Palmer 2006). This period also saw the refinement of evaluative research methodologies, and the adoption (from the medical sciences) of the statistical technique of “meta-analysis.” This technique enabled researchers to analyze the findings of large numbers of primary research studies and distil from them not only their impact on reoffending, but also what approaches and methods appeared to be associated with positive outcomes. Throughout the 1990s, summaries of these characteristics or “ingredients” of (apparently) effective rehabilitative interventions, derived from meta-analytic research, began to appear (e.g., Andrews et al. 1990a; McGuire and Priestley 1995) and in some jurisdictions were adopted as the basis for designing and delivering services. Canadian meta-analytic research published by Andrews and colleagues also underpinned a model of offender rehabilitation which came to be known as the “RNR” (risk-need-responsivity) model, which has subsequently had a huge influence on practice across a variety of jurisdictions and is widely regarded as the dominant approach to offender rehabilitation in the early twenty-first century (Andrews et al. 1990b).

England and Wales was one jurisdiction which saw significant investment in the development and evaluation of the so-called new rehabilitation under the auspices of its government’s “Crime Reduction Programme,” which sought to test the impact on reoffending of a range of programs and interventions for offenders subject to custodial and community sentences. However, the evaluative research commissioned failed to deliver clear-cut results: published studies revealed a catalogue of implementation problems; weaknesses in evaluation design; few completed reconviction studies; and results that were “mixed” and often difficult to interpret because of problems with evaluation methodologies. Far from establishing “what works,” then, researchers were left pondering (once again) whether the results of their efforts were best interpreted as failures of theory, implementation, or evaluative research itself, and fearing the implications of a return to the pessimism of “nothing works” (see, e.g., Raynor and Robinson 2009, Chap. 6).

However, the picture is not an entirely bleak one. In a recent review of evidence about “what works” in offender treatment and rehabilitation, Losel (2012) concludes that:

various measures from the ‘what works’ literature are effective. Typical effect sizes range somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent less reoffending in treated than in control groups, but there are also larger or smaller effects. Desirable outcomes have been found for cognitive-behavioural programmes, therapeutic communities, social-therapeutic prisons, milieu therapy, multisystemic treatment, RJ measures, educational and vocational programmes. (Lo¨ sel 2012, p. 1006)

This conclusion is supplemented by the important observation that “what works” is rarely reducible to specific programs or interventions that will “work” in any context: there are a variety of “moderators” of program effects that include offender factors (e.g., risk level, motivation, demographic variables), treatment context (e.g., staff skills, continuity of support, institutional climate), and evaluation method (e.g., quality of evaluation design, sample size, length of follow-up period). These are all variables that can have a bearing on the findings of research. An important implication of this is that “what works?” is too crude a question: researchers instead ought to be asking what works, with whom, in what circumstances (etc.).

History has demonstrated, thus, that the apparently straightforward question – “does it work?” – is in fact an extremely complex one, which is difficult to operationalize and has failed to produce clear-cut answers. This is a perennial problem for proponents of rehabilitation who seek to persuade sentencers and policy makers of the potential of rehabilitative sanctions to cut crime, prevent victimization, and protect communities. In the absence of convincing evidence to support such claims, sentencers and policy makers are arguably going to be more inclined to resort to measures that can be shown, or are popularly believed, to impact on crime rates, such as lengthy periods of incapacitation. However, to the extent that research into the effectiveness of rehabilitative interventions continues, it is hoped that we will see more nuanced research designs that reflect some of the lessons of the past.

The Rehabilitation (R)Evolution

The so-called collapse of the rehabilitative ideal in the latter part of the twentieth century is well documented (e.g., Garland 2001). Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the dominant “treatment model” was subjected to a three-pronged critique which emphasized its theoretical and ethical flaws as well as its apparent ineffectiveness, such that both the legitimacy of rehabilitation as a primary penal objective, and faith in the possibility of rehabilitating offenders were subject to serious doubts. In the wake of rehabilitation’s decline in official discourse and policy, analyses of penal transformation proliferated, and in many of these, rehabilitation was consigned to penal history. Whether proclaiming the arrival of a new “postmodern” penology or a “new punitiveness,” international penal commentators tended to agree that rehabilitation was dead or at least on its last legs.

More recently, however, it has become clear that claims about the demise of rehabilitation have been overstated. Not only have penal professionals tended to retain at least some optimism about the transformative purposes of their practice, but as we have seen above, research in the “correctional” field has been relentlessly focused on developing new, more effective techniques and interventions and has far from given up the quest to discover “what works.” As one of the scholars at the forefront of the “What Works” movement has explained:

Three decades ago, it was widely believed by criminologists and policymakers that ‘nothing works’ to reform offenders and that ‘rehabilitation is dead’ as a guiding correctional philosophy. By contrast, today there is a vibrant movement to reaffirm rehabilitation and to implement programs based on the principles of effective practice. How did that happen? I contend that the saving of rehabilitation was a contingent reality that emerged due to the efforts of a small group of loosely coupled research criminologists. (Cullen 2005, p. 1)

Cullen is correct to point to the important role of the research community in the “reaffirmation” of rehabilitation, which has been evident in (for example) the state of California rebranding its Department of Corrections as the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation under the leadership of a Republican governor, and in the UK, the Conservative-led coalition government promoting something it is calling a “Rehabilitation Revolution.” However, there is arguably more to the story of rehabilitation’s reaffirmation than is implied in Cullen’s account: it has been argued that we should think of the recent history of rehabilitation in terms of an evolutionary process, whereby it has been successfully transformed and re-marketed in a late-modern context, such that far from going “against the grain” of other currents in penal policy, it has in fact been rendered compatible with them (Robinson 2008). Thus, for example, the “new” rehabilitation has had to adapt to social and political contexts that have become increasingly intolerant of approaches that appear to put the needs and/or interests of offenders above those of victims (actual or potential). In jurisdictions which have been subject to “populist punitiveness,” proponents of rehabilitation have had to de-emphasize its humanitarian and welfarist justifications in favor of its utilitarian credentials (Garland 2001; Robinson 2008). Rehabilitation has also had to adapt and reposition itself within increasingly managerial correctional systems dominated by the discourse of “risk.” In this process, it has been reframed as one of a number of possible “means” toward the “end” of risk management, as well as being increasingly rationed in line with assessments of risk which determine offenders’ eligibility for “rehabilitative” sanctions or interventions.

The adaptation of rehabilitation in late-modern contexts has not however simply entailed putting a new “spin” on an old product (Robinson 2008). We have not witnessed a return to the “old” treatment model, but rather the proliferation of a new breed of “offending behavior programs” underpinned by cognitive-behavioral psychology. This “new orthodoxy” in offender rehabilitation is certainly attributable, in part, to its grounding in research and the promise of measurable reductions in reoffending on the part of program completers. But the dominance of cognitive-behavioral programs may also be attributable to their expressive and communicative qualities, and resonance with “advanced liberal” forms of governance and neoclassical criminologies which emphasize personal responsibility for wrongdoing and rely upon strategies of “responsibilization” as the dominant response to antisocial behavior (e.g., Kendall 2004). Rehabilitation has, thus, adapted and survived into the twenty-first century by transforming itself in important ways: central to its relegitimation in late-modern societies like the USA and the UK has been its successful appeal to three dominant penal narratives, which have been characterized as utilitarian, managerial, and expressive (Robinson 2008).

Challenging The “New Orthodoxy”: Future Directions In Rehabilitation

As we have seen, the “What Works?” movement and its key protagonists have played a crucial role in the relegitimation of rehabilitation in the last two decades, and the lessons of that research have spread well beyond North America, such that the “risk-need-responsivity” (RNR) model (associated particularly with the work of Don Andrews and James Bonta) has become the “new orthodoxy” in offender rehabilitation in a host of jurisdictions. The RNR model has had a particularly significant impact on approaches to offender assessment, inspiring actuarial assessment instruments such as the Level of Service Inventory and the British Offender Assessment System, which emphasize the importance of assessing offenders’ risks and (criminogenic) needs as a basis for decisions about their suitability for “rehabilitative” interventions. The RNR model has also been intimately associated with the proliferation of cognitive-behavioral offending behavior programs: indeed, the notion of “general responsivity” in the RNR formulation recommends cognitive-behavioral approaches as being the most effective in general terms.

However, both the RNR model and the specific technologies and approaches associated with it have been subject to criticism, from a variety of perspectives. Early critiques focused on the “reification” of “What Works?” (evidenced in a tendency to drop the question mark, thereby implying that the “answer” to the question had now been discovered) and the applicability of theories, assessment instruments, and/or interventions developed on the basis of research with young, white North American male offenders on different groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, and those with substantially different offending profiles. Concerns were also raised about the potentially “authoritarian” (Rotman 1990) characteristics of offending behavior programs, which were seen by some as a worrying return to the bad old days of the “treatment model,” proceeding on the basis of predominantly psychological theories of crime causation, and reviving images of offenders as passive recipients of “interventions” delivered by “experts” (e.g., Kendall 2004). Several commentators argued that RNR (and particularly the assessment instruments associated with it) promulgated a deficit model which was overly focused on risks, needs, problems, and deficiencies and blind to their potential strengths, achievements, and “protective factors” (e.g., Ward and Maruna 2007).

Drawing on developments in what they call “positive psychology,” Tony Ward and colleagues have argued for the development of “strengths-based” approaches to rehabilitation and they have proposed a “Good Lives Model” as a potential alternative to RNR. At the heart of the GLM is a positive perspective: it seeks to equip offenders with the capabilities to secure “primary human goods” (defined as valued aspects of human functioning and living) in socially acceptable and personally meaningful ways. The GLM rests on the assumption that interventions should aim to promote an individual’s “goods” as well as to manage or reduce their risk. A major aim of rehabilitative work is to enable an individual to develop a life plan that involves ways of effectively securing primary human goods without harming others. The approach requires an explicit focus on conceptualizing a good life: taking account of strengths, primary goods, and relevant environments and encouraging and respecting individuals’ capacities to make choices for themselves. To date, the GLM has been most extensively applied to rehabilitative work with sexual offenders, but its advocates propose that the model (and the theory on which it is based) is relevant for a wide range of offenders (Ward 2010).

Another alternative paradigm for offender rehabilitation builds on research on “naturalistic” processes of desistance – that is, what is known about how and why offenders cease offending. The “desistance paradigm” (e.g., Maruna and LeBel 2010; McNeill 2006) takes issue with the centrality of “interventions” in the RNR model and the notion that achieving desistance is simply a matter of dispensing the right program. This idea, its advocates argue, is at odds with the findings of desistance research, which points to desistance not as an event but a process, characterized by progress and setbacks; hope and despair. In common with advocates of the GLM, proponents of the desistance paradigm argue that RNR has downplayed the role of offender motivation in the rehabilitation process, in favor of a “one-size-fits-all” model. McNeill has argued that the GLM may offer a promising start in addressing the weakness of the RNR model with respect to motivational issues. However, because both RNR and GLM are models developed by psychologists, both place too much emphasis on the individual and on psychological issues, while de-emphasizing the role of the offender’s social context and the importance of developing opportunities and social capital for offenders. McNeill is also critical of the RNR model’s underemphasis on the role of relationships in the offender’s life (including those between the offender and the “rehabilitative” professionals with whom they engage), which also emerge from desistance research as potentially key in the desistance process.

McNeill is one of a number of commentators who have begun to draw attention to the importance of the relational dimension of, or context for, rehabilitation; that is, the idea that rehabilitation is not best conceived as something which happens to or is “done to” offenders in a social vacuum, but rather it is a process which takes place in the context of – and often seeks to build – relationships of various kinds. The idea of “relational rehabilitation” (Bazemore 1999; Robinson and Crow 2009, Chap. 9) encompasses a variety of “nontreatment” approaches that include restorative justice schemes which bring together offenders and their victims, as well as projects that utilize community members (such as mentoring schemes and “Circles of Support and Accountability” for high-risk sexual offenders). It also encompasses ideas about the potential of sentencers to act as therapeutic agents (often referred to as Therapeutic Jurisprudence) which have underpinned the development of specialist, problem-solving courts in the USA and elsewhere.

Finally, recent research and debate about “nontreatment” approaches, relational matters, and (particularly) the role of the law and its agents in processes of rehabilitation has prompted a revival of interest in the symbolic dimension of this concept, and the potential importance of “rehabilitation rituals” to mark the decertification of deviance (Maruna 2011). “Judicial rehabilitation” denotes all of those legal practices and tools which serve to expunge or delete the criminal record, or otherwise recognize or confirm the individual’s status as a desister or ex-offender. As Maruna (2011) has noted, jurisdictions differ significantly in their willingness to adopt such mechanisms, and in the extent to which they enable ex-offenders to navigate away from stigmatic labels. In European countries such as France, which traditionally place a high cultural value on privacy, judicial rehabilitation tends to be most developed (see Herzog-Evans 2011). By contrast, in the USA there is a long history of freedom of information (including “naming and shaming” that dates back to the Salem witch trials) which at least partly explains why ex-offenders are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to the protection of their privacy and thus their ability to “live down” their convictions. However, Maruna fears a general trend toward “Americanization” in Europe and elsewhere, as is becoming evident in the practice of making criminal records more widely available, and in community notification schemes with respect to sexual offenders, which tend to prioritize “public protection” over the ex-offender’s right to put their past behind them.


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