Although criminal justice agencies in Australia have, in recent years,
adopted an increasingly , responses to crime that rely on punishment alone
have failed to make our communities Instead, they have produced an This
has the potential to and places considerable strain on government budgets.
Increasing prison sentences criminal behaviour. Longer sentences are
associated with higher rates of re-offending. When prisoners return to their
communities, as the vast majority inevitably do, the problems multiply.
Exposing the limitations of punishment
In this context, it becomes important to think carefully about public policy
responses that aim to punish and deter offenders. Psychologists have been
under well-controlled laboratory conditions with both animals and humans
for nearly 100 years. Its effectiveness in promoting short-term behavioural
change, or even in suppressing negative behaviour, depends on rather
specific conditions being in place.
For punishment to work it has to be predictable. Punishment also has to be
applied at maximum intensity to work, or else tolerance and temporary
effects result. Yet applying very intense levels of punishment for many
offences goes against our sense of justice and fairness.
The threat of punishment, no matter how severe, will not deter anyone who
believes they can get away with it. It will also not deter those who are too
overcome by emotion or care about the consequences of their behaviour.
Punishment also has to be immediate. Delayed punishment provides
opportunities for other behaviours to be reinforced. In reality, it often takes
months – if not years – for someone to be apprehended, appear in court
and be sentenced.
Working towards more effective rehabilitation
Many of the conditions required for punishment to be effective will not
exist in any justice system. It follows that policies and programmes that
focus on rehabilitating offenders will have a greater chance of success in
preventing crime and improving community safety.
The origins of offender rehabilitation in Australia can be traced back to the
early penal colonies and, in particular, a prison governor on Norfolk Island
in 1840. Maconochie introduced the idea of indeterminate rather than fixed
sentences, implemented a system of rehabilitation in which good behaviour
counted towards prisoners’ early release, and advocated a system of
aftercare and community resettlement.
Maconochie’s ideas built on those of the great social reformers of
18th-century Britain, notably Quakers such as They were among the first to
try to change prisons from what they called “institutions of deep despair
and cruel punishment” to places that were more humane and had the
potential to reform prisoners’ lives.
These days, though, offender rehabilitation is often thought about in terms
of psychological treatment. We can chart the rise of current programmes
according to the broad traditions of behaviour modification The earliest
therapeutic work in the psychoanalytic tradition saw delinquent behaviour
as the product of a failure in psychological development. It was thought this
could be addressed through gaining insight into the causes of offending. A
wide range of group and milieu therapies were developed for use with
offenders, including psychodrama.
There are good grounds to develop standardised incentive models in
Australia’s prisons. Community-style therapeutic programmes for prisoners
with substance use problems in Victoria, NSW and the ACT represent
substantial advances in practice.
These programmes take advantage of the significant therapeutic
opportunities that arise by looking closely at prisoners’ social functioning
and day-to-day interactions. They actively encourage offenders to assume
responsibility not only for their own behaviour, but for that of others.
However, rehabilitation today is almost always associated with
cognitive-behavioural therapy. This targets a relatively narrow range of
crime-producing (or “criminogenic”) needs, including pro-criminal
attitudes – those thoughts, values and sentiments that support criminal
conduct. Programmes also dedicate a lot of time to trying to change
personality traits, such as low self-control, hostility, pleasure- or
thrill-seeking and lack of empathy.
Not everyone can be successfully treated. Substantial evidence now exists,
though, to suggest that this type of approach does produce socially
significant reductions in re-offending.
Essential steps in making corrections policy work
The challenges lie in ensuring that the right programmes are delivered to
the right people at the right time.
First, it is important that low-risk offenders have minimal contact with
higher-risk offenders. Extended contact is only likely to increase their risk
of recidivism. This has implications for prisoner case management, prison
design and for the courts.
Courts have the power to divert low-risk offenders from prison and thus
minimise contact with more entrenched offenders. Related to this is the
need to develop effective systems of community-based rehabilitation,
leaving prisons for the most dangerous and highest-risk offenders.
Second, concerted efforts are required to develop innovative programmes
for those who identify with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cultural
backgrounds. They are across all levels of the criminal justice system.
Third, staff need to be properly selected, trained, supervised and resourced
to deliver the highest-quality rehabilitation services to the most complex
and challenging people.
Finally, it is important to demonstrate that programmes actually make
offenders better, not worse. The types of evaluation that are needed to
attribute positive change to programme completion are complex, require
large numbers of participants and cross-jurisdictional collaboration. A
national approach to programme evaluation is sorely needed.
This is not to suggest that criminal behaviour shouldn’t be punished – only
that we should not rely on punishment by itself to change behaviour. We
need to create a true system of rehabilitation that can enhance the
corrective impact of punishment-based approaches.
It also doesn’t mean that punishment never works. It may work reasonably
well with some people – perhaps those who are future-oriented, have good
self-monitoring and regulation skills, and who can make the connection
between their behaviour and negative consequences months later.
Unfortunately, many people in prison simply aren’t like this. The challenge,
then, is two-fold: to find ways to make punishment more effective and to
tackle the causes of offending through high-quality rehabilitation.
Correctional services often get little credit for their efforts. They are widely
criticised when things go wrong. However, their efforts to rehabilitate
offenders are not only sensible, but also cost-efficient and practical.
We need to support efforts to create a true system of rehabilitation. Such a
system will be comprehensive, coherent and internally consistent in
applying evidence-based practice at all levels.