Do rehabilitation programs for young offenders actually work?

Professor Andrew Day
Professor Andrew Day
April 9, 2013

The answer is a resounding yes according to Professor Andrew Day, Professor of Clinical and Forensic Psychology in the Forensic Psychology Centre at Deakin University.

‘Analysis of studies from thousands of programs around the world show that good programs, well implemented, can reduce re-offending rates by up to 40 per cent.

‘If we don’t intervene we know that most young offenders will re-offend within two years.  Given the enormous social and economic cost to the community of a life of crime, programs to reduce re-offending are great value for money.’

Professor Day notes that in South Australia we have a well developed system of diversion which gives young offenders the opportunities and support to change their offending behaviour.

‘Offending behaviour is deeply rooted in the culture and the environment of the young offender.  Working not only with the offender, but with their families and peer groups offers us the best chance of success. Serious offenders, such as those committing serious assaults and violent sexual crimes can benefit from another layer of treatment that focuses on the causes of the behaviour, on the assumptions, attitudes and environment that triggers offending. This kind of intervention has shown to be particularly effective with some of our most serious young offenders.’

Professor Day notes the recent Productivity Commission findings showing that the disproportionately high rates of detention of Aboriginal young people across Australia are not improving. ‘Successes with Indigenous young people have come from developing culturally relevant programs and delivering them in ways that are engaging. We still have work to do in this area in South Australia.’

So, what would a good rehabilitation program for young offenders look like? ‘Well, there would be a range of initiatives that would ensure continuity between the services offered within detention centres to what is available in the community.  There would be a framework for assessing risk of re-offending and placing young people in the most relevant program to their level of risk, as well as quality assurance to ensure programs are implemented to a high standard. Programs themselves would place an emphasis on how young people think about their behaviour, and manage difficult emotions, as well as working with families or carers and other significant people as young people transition back into the community at the end of their sentence. Programs would be multi-faceted and integrate with and support other services such as education and vocational training and health services.  They would build skills and address attitudes and culture in preparation for the young person’s return to the community.’

Professor Day commented that the effectiveness of a program lies in the quality of its delivery. ‘A moderately effective program that is well run will produce better results than a more effective one that is poorly delivered. The most effective programs are those delivered by well trained and motivated staff with good supervision and support.’

And, of course, that are based on evidence.‘There is a sound base of knowledge to predict what will work in rehabilitating young offenders – and what will not. Increased punishment will not work, and may increase offending in some circumstances, and neither will increased supervision.  Boot camps, with no therapeutic input, have long been known to fail as a means of rehabilitation.

‘The good news is that rehabilitation programs can be effective even in settings such as detention centres.  Ideally we would like to provide the kind of stable and supportive environments that young people need to thrive in the community but for some young offenders detention can provide safety, stability, access to education and training and access to rehabilitation programs that can start them on the road to changing their lives.’

For more about rehabilitation and young offenders see Professor Day’s chapter on the subject in Casey, S., Day, A., Ward, T., & Vess, J. (2012). Foundations of Offender Rehabilitation. Oxford: Routledge Publishing. Other chapters on theories of crime and models of behaviour are also informative.

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