Offender Treatment Essay

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When offenders are convicted and sentenced by the court, a key aspect of the resulting sanction is to inflict pain on the offender, especially if the penalty involves incarceration. This pain is sometimes justified as meting out just deserts (or retribution), teaching offenders that crime does not pay (deterrence), or locking them away so that they cannot roam the streets and victimize the innocent (incapacitation). But the criminal sanction is often imposed for another purpose: to improve offenders so that they will be less likely to offend in the future. In this way, their lives are improved and public safety is enhanced. This goal of sanctioning is most often called rehabilitation or treatment.

History of Treatment

Notably, rehabilitation has been at the core of the U.S. correctional enterprise since prisons were first invented in the 1820s and 1830s. It is instructive that the first prisons were not called “justice institutions” but rather “penitentiaries”—places where the wayward would be sent to be reformed. At the beginning of the 1900s, another age of reform emerged in the Progressive era. It was at this time that the concept of “individualized treatment” took hold. Following the model used in medicine, reformers argued that each individual commits crimes for different reasons. One person might rob out of need for money, whereas another might rob due to an emotional disturbance. Punishing them the same way made no sense. To save them from a life it crime, it was essential to address the financial need of one robber (e.g., give him or her employment skills) and the emotional needs of the other robber (e.g., give psychological counseling).

To achieve individualized treatment, the Progressive reformers developed a system in which offenders would receive a presentence report that would detail their life history. If placed in the community, a probation officer would supervise and help them. If placed in prison, a parole board would judge when each offender was cured and then release them to the watchful eye of the parole officers. Counselors would be hired to help offenders address their problems. And for juveniles, a special justice system would be set up whose only goal was to save wayward youngsters from a life of crime.

As David Rothman among others has shown, this idealist system never came to pass. Prisons were often bleak and inhumane places where treatment was difficult to accomplish. Many programs intended to help offenders were ineffective or coercive. By the early 1970s, many commentators had rejected rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the alternative to rehabilitation turned out to be far worse as an era of what Todd Clear refers to as “penal harm” arose. America went on an imprisonment binge and eventually crowded more than 2.4 million of its citizens—one in 100 adults— into its secure institutions. It is now generally realized that this experiment in punishing the United States out of its crime problem was largely a failure and, in any case, is no longer something that governments have the money to pay for.

Efforts have been undertaken to ensure that rehabilitation is revitalized. Once again, more efforts are being made to ensure that the “correctional” system is in the corrections business. Still, if rehabilitation is to have a future, it must be undertaken in a way that is defensible. Francis Cullen has recently argued that corrections must take seriously its obligation to become a profession with an emphasis on expertise and ethics. He proposes that similar to medicine, the field be governed by a “correctional Hippocratic Oath,” in which practitioners are held to the standard of doing no harm to their charges. Building an ethical corrections system, however, will be a challenging task. It will entail not engaging in practices that inflict harm on offenders and that are ineffective.

Unethical Corrections

There are three fundamental unethical practices in contemporary corrections. The first unethical practice is inflicting harm on those individuals whom the system has been trusted to treat. An example of this is illustrated in the Scared Straight Program. Currently incarcerated offenders, often those with long and/or life sentences, are encouraged to use threats of physical, sexual, and/or psychological violence to strike fear in the hearts and minds of the young program participants. The fear of victimization while incarcerated is meant to deter the youth from criminal behavior. The research on Scared Straight suggests the program does not have the intended deterrent effect. Rather, juveniles who participate in this type of program are as likely, if not more likely, to commit crime compared to juveniles who do not participate in the program. Scared Straight violates the “Do no harm” motto in that program participation increases the juvenile’s risk for criminal activity (harm to the offender) and decreases public safety (harm to the community).

The second example of unethical practice in corrections is what E. Latessa, F. Cullen, and P. Gendreau refer to as “correctional quackery.” Correctional quackery is the use of correctional treatment programs that are not based on theory or empirical support. Corrections is littered with programs based on good ideas (e.g., puppy programs, arts and crafts, music therapy) but none of these programs are linked to the known predictors of crime. To that end, it should come as no surprise when the programs are evaluated and fail to show a reduction in recidivism. One may argue that implementing programs devoid of theory or empirical support is a fraud perpetrated against taxpayers who expect their hard-earned money to go toward programs that will reduce recidivism and increase public safety.

The third example of unethical practice involves program integrity. That is, a program may be based on sound theory and empirical support, but if program staff members are untrained, undertrained, and/or are inappropriately trained the staff may not be equipped to carry out the program as designed. Similarly, understaffing programs inhibits the likelihood a program can be delivered as designed. In sum, a breach of program integrity undermines the effectiveness of a program and does a disservice to the population and community the program is intended to serve.

Ethical Corrections

To ensure ethical and effective treatment of offenders, many correctional agencies have adopted a theoretically driven and empirically supported model of treatment known as the risk-need-responsivity model (RNR). The RNR model was originally developed by Canadian social psychologists whose research on social learning theory and offender treatment helped identify best practices for the delivery of effective and ethical treatment. The RNR model calls for trained practitioners to use validated risks/need assessment to pinpoint the individual treatment needs of offenders. The offender’s needs are carefully evaluated and the offender is assigned to treatment that will best meet their needs and individual learning style. The amount or dosage of treatment is determined by the offender’s risk level, with high-risk offenders receiving the most intensive time and treatment services. The offenders are monitored throughout treatment to ensure their criminogenic needs are being met, and treatment plans are modified based on the individual’s progress to ensure the best use of resources.

The RNR model outlines an ethical standard of care for the offender population that is rooted in theory. Further, programs based on the known predictors of crime and that maintain program integrity have been shown to decrease the likelihood of recidivism and therefore, increase public safety. Overall, the principles of the RNR model have set a new standard in offender treatment that far exceeds that of the previously prescribed motto, “Do no harm.”


Offender rehabilitation and treatment is something Americans have long supported. However, the unparalleled growth in the number of adults under correctional supervision in the last 40 years has hindered the ability of correctional practitioners to develop and deliver effective and ethical offender treatment. Budgetary concerns coupled with the fact that nearly all offenders eventually return to the community have prompted lawmakers and taxpayers to take a serious interest in evidence-based correctional practices. While these efforts have focused primarily on recidivism rates, ethical concerns certainly come into play as unethical treatment of offenders can increase the recidivism risk for the individual offender, and in turn, put the community at greater risk for victimization.


  1. Andrews, Donald and James Bonta. The Psychology of Criminal Conduct. New Providence, NJ: Matthew Bender, 2010.
  2. Clear, Todd. Harm in American Penology, Offenders, Victims, and Their Communities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
  3. Cullen, Francis T. “Making Corrections Work: It’s Time for a New Penology.” Journal of Community Corrections, v.21/1. (2011).
  4. Cullen, Francis T. and Karen Gilbert. Reaffirming Rehabilitation. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson, 1982.
  5. Cullen, Francis T., Brenda Vose, Cheryl Lero Jonson, and James Unnever. “Public Support for Early Intervention: Is Child Saving a ‘Habit of the Heart?’” Victims and Offenders, v.2/2 (2007).
  6. Kleinig, John and Margaret Leland Smith. Discretion, Community, and Correctional Ethics.Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
  7. Latessa, Edward J., Francis T. Cullen, and Paul Gendreau. “Beyond Correctional Quackery: Professionalism and the Possibility of Effective Treatment.” Federal Probation, v.66 (2002).
  8. Petrosino, Anthony, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, and John Buehler. “Scared Straight and Other Juvenile Awareness Programs for Preventing Juvenile Delinquency: A Systematic Review of the Randomized Experimental Evidence.” Annals of the American Academy of Policy and Social Science, v.589 (2003).
  9. Rothman, David. Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

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