Three Core Elements of Programs that Reduce Recidivism: Who, What, and How Well

[UPDATED: June 4, 2018]

By the CSG Justice Center

Screenshot 2015-07-08 11.30.36State and local governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on a wide variety of programs and services intended to reduce recidivism for people in the criminal justice system. But how do they determine if these resources are being used effectively? There is a growing body of research about which programs work, who should participate in these programs, and how they should operate to maximize effectiveness. However, government officials overseeing significant investments in recidivism reduction often do not have the necessary information to ensure that the latest research and best practices are well executed in their state.

Programs that are effective at reducing recidivism have three core elements in common: they target people who are most likely to reoffend (who); they use practices rooted in the latest research on what works to reduce recidivism (what), and they regularly review program quality and evaluate how closely the program adheres to its established model (how well).

Target the right people

JRStockImageSquareWho should be participating in these programs? To have a significant impact on reducing recidivism, programs must target people who have a moderate to high probability of reoffending. Actuarial risk assessment instruments are designed to gauge the likelihood of future contact with the criminal justice system. Research has shown that providing the most intensive supervision and treatment for people at a high risk of reoffending results in the greatest reductions in recidivism. It has also shown that requiring intensive programming for people at a low risk of reoffending is counterproductive, and often increases their likelihood of reoffending.

Use evidence-based programs

What types of programs should be funded? Research has demonstrated that programs that adhere to the principles of risk, need, and responsivity and use a cognitive behavioral approach are the most effective at reducing recidivism. In addition to targeting the most intensive supervision and services for people who are most likely to reoffend (risk principle), programs should also focus treatment on criminogenic needs (dynamic factors that contribute to the likelihood of reoffending), such as criminal thinking or attitude (needs principle). Programs that focus only on non-criminogenic needs (dynamic factors that are not associated with recidivism), such as self-esteem or relationships, do little to lower recidivism. Finally, programs should be implemented in a way that promotes active participation (e.g., making accommodations for language or literacy issues) and relies on methods that are effective with people in the criminal justice system, such as cognitive behavioral programs (responsivity principle).

Cognitive behavioral programs

Cognitive behavioral programs help people who have committed crimes identify how their thinking patterns influence their feelings, which in turn influence their actions. These programs include structured social learning components where new skills, behaviors, and attitudes are consistently reinforced. Cognitive behavioral programs that target areas such as attitudes, values, and beliefs have a high likelihood of positively influencing future behavior, including a person’s choice of peers, whether he or she abuses substances, and his or her interactions with family. Most effective cognitive behavioral programs are action-oriented and often include components for people to practice skills through role-play with a trained instructor.

Monitor the quality of program delivery

How well are the programs performing? Well-run programs that closely follow a proven model for reducing recidivism are essential to achieving desired outcomes. Programs that receive high scores on assessments such as the Correctional Program Checklist and Correctional Program Assessment Inventory that evaluate the quality of programs are likely to reduce recidivism. These tools evaluate whether the program has the capability to deliver evidence-based interventions and services with fidelity by observing programming, assessing staff training and leadership, reviewing the curriculum, and interviewing staff and participants.

Why are these core elements important when reviewing the efficacy of program investments?

Investments in programs meant to reduce recidivism will fall short if the programs fail to incorporate all three core elements. Traditionally, policymakers and program administrators have relied on formal evaluations to determine the effectiveness of program investments, but this approach is simply too expensive to conduct on every program and usually does not provide timely results for annual funding decisions. Program administrators undertaking an informal examination of program adherence to the three core elements could help to identify programs most ready for a formal evaluation, and inform future funding decisions to ensure that policymakers are investing in programs that are most effective at reducing recidivism.

The CSG Justice Center has worked with many states and jurisdictions to take stock of recidivism-reduction programming and help determine if it is being implemented in a way that will be most likely to be effective. For example, through the Justice Program Assessment (JPA), CSG Justice Center staff conduct an intensive, system-wide assessment of recidivism-reduction programming that identifies whether high-risk people are prioritized for participating in programs, research-based curricula are used, and high-quality programming is consistently delivered. In 2015, Idaho used the JPA to evaluate its prison and community-based programs. The analysis revealed shortcomings that prompted Idaho to overhaul its correctional programming.

Through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, the CSG Justice Center often works with state leaders and government agencies to determine how to improve the impact of program investments on reducing recidivism. Additionally, through the Statewide Adult Recidivism Reduction Program, the CSG Justice Center helps state policymakers and corrections administrators implement evidence-based programs that incorporate the three core elements as part of a holistic, research-based plan to reduce recidivism.

Policymakers and government officials want to spend money as prudently as possible, especially considering that funding one program often diverts resources from other worthy efforts. The three core elements of programs that can help reduce recidivism give policymakers the tools to ensure that the programs they are funding are having the greatest positive impact on people in the criminal justice system.