- Published: October 31, 2012
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world: about 20% of the world's prison population . For the past few decades, the American legal system and criminal justice policy at large has been dominated or at least largely influenced by a retributive mentality to punishment - offenders must be locked up behind bars so that they will learn their lesson and not recidivate or even think of committing the crime again. However, this policy has failed to reduce recidivism rates and has instead lead to increasing costs of maintaining prisons and providing for the prisoners . Why has this 'Get Tough' Mentality failed? Some explanations include that many offenders are impulsive and/or underestimate the odds that they will be punished. Furthermore, some prisoners may even recidivate because of the gambler's fallacy - they think that because they've been punished already, they won't be caught and punished again . It appears that in order to improve our legal system for the future, we must start reforming the way we treat prisoners. One major way to do this is through greater implementation of criminal rehabilitation programs.
One model that we can use to structure these programs is the RNR (Risk-Need-Responsivity) Model of offender rehabilitation. The model is centered around a set of three core principles that have since been expanded to more than 17 principles by some researchers (ex .Bonta and Andrews (2007)). Andrews et al. (1990) proposed these three principles, which include: Risk principle (Who): Direct intensive services to the higher risk offenders and minimize services to the low risk offenders.; Need principle (what): Target criminogenic needs in treatment and finally the Responsivity principle ('how'):: Provide the treatment in a style and mode that is responsive to the offender’s learning style and ability  . These principles taken together provide the who, what and how of an effective rehabilitation program. Now how good this this model and those similar to it in reducing recidivism? A 1990 meta-analysis of 80 studies showed a significant correlation between adherence of an offender rehabilitation program to these three principles and a reduced rate of recidivism . Furthermore, a more recent study in 2006 showed that offender treatment under the RNR principles as an intervention to prevent recidivism was quite effective (more so than other treatments such as psychotherapy for offenders) and much more effective than certain medical interventions like chemotherapy for breast cancer and bypass surgery for a cardiac event . These studies suggest that any criminal rehabilitation program we put in place should be based around this RNR Model. The RNR model can even be combined with ever-evolving and improving actuarial models that assess risk of future recidivism in order to identify high-risk offenders and low-risk offenders. In order to fix our disproportionate incarceration rates and effectively reform our legal system for the future, we must shift from pure punishment-based approaches to preventing recidivism and recognize the role and effectiveness that criminal rehabilitation can play to both prevent crime and also improve the prospects of the criminal.
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