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Compendium 2000 on Effective Correctional Programming

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Informing Young Offender's Policy in Current Research: What the Future Holds


Recently, there has been a move toward a more risk-specific means of classification. Knowledge and measurement of risk can assist in case planning and selection of appropriate targets for service to be effective. Currently, there are several measures and systems for classifications and these are outlined in this chapter.

Knowledge has greatly increased in the areas of young offender management and treatment. Progress has been made for the description of successful components of intervention and in method of service delivery. Advances have also been made to identify the factors that can distinguish chronic or persistent offenders. The major risk factors for adolescents are summarized.

Knowledge of the general literature of risk is critical in the development of broad-based strategies to assess criminogenic potential in adolescents. Following from the risk principle of case classification,2 knowledge and measurement of risk can assist in case planning and selection of appropriate targets for service to be effective. According to Hoge and Andrews (1996), the assessor must make meaningful assumptions about the general level of risk to guide the intensity of intervention, and specific statements of areas of risk to provide relevance in case planning and targeting for appropriate treatment to take place.


During the past decade, meta-analytic reviews of the young offender treatment literature have contributed significantly to the appreciation that the “nothing works” debate is now over in youth corrections. Current discussions now emphasize the issues of what works and for whom and how to translate existing knowledge of successful programs to other jurisdictions. (See Chapter 7 in this Compendium).

Findings from the meta-analyses

Meta-analysis statistically compares the types of treatments that are offered, to whom they are directed and with what outcomes. The number and quality of the studies that are included in the review only limit the meaningfulness of meta-analysis. Fortunately, there is now a sufficient number of qualitative studies to make interpretations of the treatment literature in youth justice with confidence, although Lösel (1995) outlines some of his reservations with respect to limiting the generalization of such findings.

In two separate analyses Lipsey suggested that the overall effect size linking treatment with reductions in reoffending lie between 20 to 40 per cent as contrasted with no treatment comparison groups, and only slightly less when compared to groups receiving some type of “usual service” (Lipsey, 1992; Lipsey & Wilson, 1997). Stronger effect sizes were found in his studies in the following variables: higher risk cases, longer duration of treatment and behavioural-oriented multimodal treatment with a stronger emphasis on “sociological” than psychological orientation of service delivery.

Institutional versus non-institutional placement for treatment

Lipsey and Wilson's (1997) subsequent review distinguished placement of treatment, residential versus community, in differentiating characteristics of effective programs. This is a critical differentiation since much of the debate regarding effective youth justice policies centres on the importance of incarceration as a relevant factor in community safety. Lipsey and Wilson noted in their analysis that different contributions are made for various components of service as a function of the placement for treatment. Table 12.1 summarizes factors relevant for effective programs in institutional and non-institutional placements.

TABLE 12.1 Program factors contributing to effectiveness for institutionalized and non-institutionalized young offenders

Institutional-base Components Non-institutional-based Components
Interpersonal Skills Interpersonal Skills
Teaching Family Model Individual/Group Programs
Multiple Services Multiple Services
Behavioural Programs Restitution/Probation
Individual/Group Programs Employment/Academic Programs

Effect sizes accounting for total program outcome across both institutional and non-institutional programs suggested that the three factors comprising the highest ranking were; interpersonal skills training, individual counselling and behavioural programs. The second grouping of lesser, yet significant contribution were the two program factors consisting of multimodal services and restitution for youths on probation.

The work of Andrews et al. (1990; 1992) was consistent with the findings of Lipsey. However Andrews' work provides more specificity in regards to appropriate targeting for intervention -- known as the risk principle -- and increasing sophistication regarding style and type of intervention, namely the importance of cognitive-behavioural oriented interventions. On a broader level, Andrews' work outlined characteristics of promising programs as:

  • Employment of systematic assessment that emphasizes factors relevant to criminality;
  • Possess therapeutic integrity;
  • Attend to relapse prevention;
  • Target appropriately;
  • Employ appropriate styles of service.

Andrews and Gendreau (1998) have developed the Correctional Program Assessment Inventory which assess the extent to which the principles of effective service within a particular program may be present based on the empirical outcomes from the meta-analysis.

Despite the encouraging findings, Lösel (1995) has set forth a cautionary note. While underscoring many of the principle findings from Lipsey and Andrews, his conclusions are perhaps a bit more tentative, and worthy of comment. Lösel suggests that while the links to effective intervention are clearly in the positive direction, they remain small relative to the proportion of variance accounted for by error or by factors not accounted for in the evaluations. He cites the need for research to address the following:

  • Differential effects of offender characteristics
  • Modearator variables such as psycopathy that seem to influence the extent of favourable outcomes
  • The lack of replication of documented, effective programs.


Greenwood (1999) in his review of promising programs noted “carefully targeted early childhood interventions can yield measurable benefits and that some of those benefits endure for some time after the program has ended.” And while literature on clinical outcomes as well as cost-effectiveness continue to support early intervention and prevention efforts, recent public opinion data has perhaps brought its importance into clearer focus. Cullen et al. (1998) reported that the public's support for early intervention efforts actually exceeded the public's sup-port for incarceration, a somewhat surprising finding. Canada has illustrated its awareness in establishing a separate National Crime Prevention Centre with the commitment to contribute significant financial support in the development of crime prevention strategies. The Canadian Council on Social Development has created an advisory committee to assist in the development of crime prevention priorities.


The early intervention literature can be divided in two important ways. The first is by the preferred age at the time of intervention. The second is by the nature or extent of intervention and refers to the preference of programs to be targeted towards specific groups, or whether programs should be provided to a general class of persons.

Age as a predictor of risk

The age of preference for early intervention is tied to the literature on prediction. Findings from Bronfrenbrenner (1979), Farrington (1995) and Patterson (1992) are helpful sources since they provide developmental contexts in which to under-stand the meaningfulness of certain factors as being linked to conduct disorder. For example, early childhood learning difficulties may be manifested as school avoidance in mid elementary school years that might suggest the need for early learning assessments or general academic screening. In the National Crime Prevention Council (1996) Preventing Crime by Investing in Families: Promoting Positive Outcomes in Children Six to Twelve Years Old, a model designed as a function of age is provided to guide targets for prevention. The Model is found in Table 12.2.

TABLE 12.2 Crime prevention model: prenatal to six years

Level Goals Means
Prenatal Promote healthy babies Prepared parents; supports to parents
Birth Facilitate attachments and prevent child abuse Home visiting supports early identification of difficulties
Family Increase family cohesion and improve parenting skills Range of supports to parent
Toddler/Pre-school Encourage cognitive/social development and aggression Early child care/education with family reduce involvement to children whose families require assistance community/societal actions to prevent violence
School Improve school outcomes School-bases initiatives
Source: National Crime Prevention Council's Preventing Crime by Investing in Families, May 1997.


The model for early intervention provided by the National Crime Prevention Council is but one developmental model that can be found in the literature. Many such models exist. They share in common the belief that age is a significant marker that can help determine appropriate targets guiding the preferred nature and type of intervention. A second means of conceptualizing prevention and early intervention is to determine whether the goals of intervention are of primary or tertiary significance. Primary prevention reflects the need to “treat” all persons of a significant class while tertiary prevention/intervention suggests that only a designated group within a class of persons would benefit from the suggested intervention. This distinction has emerged as having real significance. Useful resources in community development for prevention efforts are the two publications, Building a safer Canada: A community-based crime prevention manual and Step by step: Evaluating your community crime prevention efforts (Justice Canada, 1996).

The final word on prevention can be found in Tremblay and West (1995). In their excellent review entitled Developmental crime prevention (p. 224-225) these authors conclude with “... money invested in early (e.g., pre-school) prevention efforts with at-risk families will give greater payoffs, than money invested in later (e.g., adolescent) prevention efforts with the same at-risk families. ... The prevention strategy should reduce the amount of resources needed for corrective services from our education, health, and justice systems.”


Community-based intervention

Both of the meta-analyses reported by Andrews and Bonta (1998), and Lipsey and Wilson (1997) suggested that effect sizes linked to more effective outcomes were characteristic of programs delivered in the community as contrasted to those delivered in residence. Henggeler (1989) suggests that in part this is accounted for by the type and quality of interactions adolescents experience with the social influences that surround them. To be effective, programs need to be in a position to influence those social factors that may in turn be interacting with a particular youth's competencies (e.g., problem-solving skills, beliefs and attitudes). Hence, particular attention is now being paid to interventions that influence the systems that are consistent with the major predictors of delinquency risk, namely, families, peers and schools.

Multi-systemic Therapy

Multi-systemic Therapy (MST) refers to the consistent application of principles that reflect what is known in the young offender literature. While some reviewers may suggest that MST does not represent “anything new under the sun”, it is in the method of service delivery that MST has shown itself to be effective with high risk youth. Consistent with the risk principle of case classification, MST attempts to influence the major criminogenic risk factors through the application of appropriate strategies in a multi-determined, multi-modal fashion.

In addition to reflecting the knowledge-base in the offender literature, Multi-systemic Therapy has been evaluated with a series of randomized clinical trials that have included appropriate follow-up periods.3

While MST reflects interventions that have shown them-selves to be effective, it is in the method of service delivery within a specified set of principles that MST distinguishes itself. The nine principles against which MST adherence is measured consist of the following:

  • The primary purpose of assessment is to understand the “fit” between the identified problems and their broader context.
  • Therapeutic contacts should emphasize the positive and should use systemic strengths as levers for change.
  • Interventions should be designed to promote responsible behaviours and decrease irresponsible behaviour among family members.
  • Interventions should be present-focused and action-oriented, targeting specific and well-defined problems.
  • Interventions should target sequences of behaviours within or between multiple systems that maintain the identified problems.
  • Interventions should be developmentally appropriate and fit the developmental needs of the youth.
  • Interventions should be designed to require daily or weekly effort by family members.
  • Intervention efficacy is evaluated continuously from multiple perspectives with providers assuming accountability for overcoming barriers to successful outcomes.
  • Interventions should be designed to promote treatment generalizations and long-term maintenance of therapeutic change by empowering care givers to address family members' needs across multiple systemic contexts.

Finally, MST may ultimately prove its worth to juvenile justice and children's mental health systems due to the development of a variety of dissemination manuals and training approaches. One such dissemination effort is taking place in Ontario, where a four year randomized clinical trial is now into its second year of implementation, and it consists of four participating sites in a variety of settings with therapists and supervisors who have participated in the intensive training and consultation that characterizes the application of MST. Similar to MST clinical trials in the U.S., this trial is being rigorously evaluated (see Leschied & Cunningham 1998a; 1998b).

Cognitive-behavioural oriented interventions

Cognitive-behavioural treatment (CBT) with young offenders has received considerable attention. This can be attributed to at least three influences: the general literature regarding effective interventions with children and adolescents has been supportive of CBT; risk factors regarding attitudes, beliefs and values have shown themselves to be particularly strongly related to anti-social behaviour, and recent meta-analyses have shown CBT to be the treatment of choice related to effectiveness over and above the traditional influences of psychodynamic, medical and behavioural interventions.

CBT refers to interventions that connect thoughts to behaviour. Hollin (1990) describes it this way “... The cognitive-behavioural position acknowledges the importance of environmental influences while seeking to incorporate the role of cognitions in under-standing behaviour. Cognitions are given a mediational role between the outside world and overt behaviour; cognitions are seen as deter-mining what environmental influences are attended to, how they are perceived, and whether they might affect future behaviour.”

Interest in CBT has been based not only on disappointing results from medically -- based interventions (lack of empirical support generally) and behaviourally -- based interventions (lack of support for sustainable gains and genralization ) but as well on the general theoretical assumptions about the social-psychological understanding of the etiological research on the development of delinquency. This body of theoretical work suggests that the interaction of the individual with systems that can influence attitudes and subsequent behaviour may improve the explanatory value of the studies on prediction and assessment. Hence, the importance of understanding how children and adolescents mediate their experience may not only assist in explaining the behaviour, but may also contribute meaning-fully in how to alter behavioural outcomes. Such outcomes can encourage youths to shift their thinking away from attitudes that support anti-social behaviour and towards the development of thinking styles and content that promote prosocial behaviour. Finch, Nelson, and Ott (1993) suggest that the general expanded influence of CBT in the child/adolescent literature can be attributed to factors such as:

  • Increasing evidence that thought processes influence behaviour.
  • Traditional stimulus-response explanations cannot account for all outcomes
  • Thought processes can account for behavioural change
  • Operant approaches have not provided convincing evidence that S-R theories can account for generalization and maintenance.

Andrews et al. (1990) discuss the important aspect of clinical relevance in decision-making when important case management decisions arise. Clinically relevant decisions can be considered as those that link the decision to correctly priorize or target certain behaviours/systems for change with the particular risk profile of the individual. Given the importance placed on attitudes from the prediction literature with young offenders, targeting cognitions would seem to make considerable sense as an important focus for service providers.

Not only has CBT made inroads in the promotion of effective intervention with children/adolescents generally, but numerous programs now exist to train workers in the youth corrections field in both residential and community contexts (see for example the training materials developed through the London Family Court Clinic, Baker & Leschied, 1997; Baker, 1998). CBT pro-grams targeting specific types of offenders/offences include: Choices Program developed by Ross and Fabiano (1985) that targets general offending patterns: Aggression Replacement Training developed by Goldstein et al. (1987) that combines psycho-educational intervention, skill streaming and moral education to reduce aggression in high risk youth; and sex offender treatment controlling inappropriate arousal through cognitive restructuring, a program summarized in the work of Ryan and Lane (1991). CBT interventions are typically delivered as part of an overall strategy that frequently also includes systems involvement through family therapy and can be delivered either while a youth is in the community or in residential care.


Programs targeting violent youths

Unlike the stability of the construct of anti-social behaviour, violence or aggression in youth is considered a more complex and variable event. Indeed, misconceptions in the belief that childhood/adolescent aggression is a unitary construct may well be one of the main impediments to developing effective solutions. Of the many variables that can affect concepts of understanding youthful violence are factors such as; age of onset, context of violence, the multi-determined nature of the seeds of violence and gender differences (Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998). While readers will be familiar with the literature on genetic and biological bases of violence with youths, current research emphasizes the importance of violence as a learned behaviour. As such, learning can take place in response to a child/youth feeling overwhelmed and out of control, where the role of aggression may be to reassert control, or develop what Bandura refers to as re-establishing self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). Violence can also be vicariously learned as a result of experiencing the rewards that are perceived to be associated with exercising power through others.

Social skills training and anti-bullying programs have also become popular, particularly in light of the encouraging findings reported by Olweus and his colleagues (1987). Olweus suggests that strategies targeting aggressive children -- anti-bullying -- can bring about meaningful reductions not only in those children who receive the program, but in general levels of aggression within the schools which employed the program.

Programs have also been developed to target safe and secure practices that are delivered within the juvenile justice system. For example, Leschied, Cunningham, and Mazaheri (1997) summarized the literature on programs, practices and policies that can reduce violence in detention and short-term custody systems. Such factors as the availability of social skills programs, “dawn to dusk” programming, training for staff that emphasizes the development of conflict resolution skills, classification for purposes of identifying perpetrators and likely victims of violence are components of safer practices within detention. Goldstein and his research team (Goldstein, Glick, Irwin, Pask-McCartney, & Rubama, 1989) have also reported extensively on the development of their aggression replacement training strategies to reduce adolescent violence. This program emphasizes modelling, role playing, performance feedback and transfer training in the context of other systemic interventions within the family and community.

Programs targeting substance abusing youths

Substance use stands alone as a major risk factor for chronic/ persistent young offenders. It is also highly related to peer associates in the context of affiliation with peers who endorse anti-social values as opposed to prosocial values (Andrews et al., 1992; Henggeler, 1989). Elliott, Huizinga, and Ageton (1985) also make the point that while the presence of substance use may signal problems in the selection of peers, use of illegal drugs or overuse of alcohol may also be associated with a significant mental illness such as depression. Hence, the assessment of degree and nature of drug use needs also to made in the context of concern for possible mental health disorder.

For intervention to be meaningful, Gresswell and Hollin (1992) underscore the importance of acknowledging the developmental significance of illegal substance use. Their model of alcohol use suggests that what may have begun in early adolescence as behaviour that was connected to socialization (e.g., being peer driven), may become, by late adolescence, characteristic of a cognitive distortion (e.g., “being high gives me courage”, “it makes me feel less guilty when I do something wrong”). Hence, to be effective, programs need to be tailored to the developmental significance of the behaviour. Substance abuse programs need also to be intensive and include strategies such as: monitoring, being system-based (situated within the family and peer group) and include a relapse prevention component that is planned in a way to capitalize on changes that take place within the formal structure of the intervention.

Programs targeting sex offending youths

Interest in adolescent sex offending has not been well developed from a research perspective and no doubt represents one of those areas that will require a great deal more emphasis both for purposes of improving assessment and treatment. What is known currently, is that adolescent sex offenders do not represent a unitary group and vary on a number of important dimensions that include: the nature of the relationship of perpetrator to victim -- familial versus extra-familial; age and level of maturity at onset of first offence; nature of offence pattern -- whether offending is restricted to sexual offences or whether it represents a general pattern of anti-social acts; and the nature and intrusiveness of sexual offending from indirect victimization (obscene phone calls) to rape and aggravated sexual assault.

Appropriate selection of treatment will follow from an under-standing of the type/nature/duration of the offending pattern. Epps (1996) and Ryan and Lane (1991) have both summarized selected treatment strategies as a function of individual need of particular offenders. Treatment strategies typically include a combination of cognitive interventions, anger management, social skills training, alcohol and substance abuse programs, victim empathy and age appropriate development of socially accept-able sexual behaviour.


Revisions to Canada's youth justice legislation are providing considerable impetus for the development of alternatives to the traditional court system. This trend in Canada is keeping pace with similar initiatives in Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand (Beyond Prisons Conference, 1998). The development of such alternatives is recognition that for lower risk and some moderate risk youth, an alternative to court that attempts to reconnect the youth to the values of their immediate community may have more long term benefit and provide a cost savings to the community.

The values of, what has become known as the Restorative Justice Movement, as summarized in Cunningham, Leschied, and Currie (1999) include the following:

  • crimes are the “property” of the individual and not the state
  • the goal is to restore harmony among the victim, offender and their community
  • courts are seen as ineffective since they have the potential to victimize both victims and the offenders
  • the process works against further isolating the victim from the crime and the offender
  • solutions are generated from the community.

The original basis for restorative justice as an approach to community healing stems from traditional custom by aboriginal groups in New Zealand. Judge Barry Stuart of the Yukon Territories suggests that “The health of a community improves when its members participate in conflict resolution.” Further, he indicates, “[communities] have a natural capacity to prevent crime, and rebuild broken lives and relationships caused by crime” (The Church Council on Justice and Corrections, 1996).

Restorative justice programs typically include the involvement of a community justice panel or community group that meet with the youth and their family. This meeting symbolizes community level accountability and often will also include the victim or a representative of the victim (e.g., the manager of the store where a shoplifting incident took place). Some programs may utilize a form of “public shaming” that is used to extract an apology while others will require not only an admission of guilt/responsibility but also tangible compensation back to the individual/community as reflected in the completion of a financial restitution order or community work.


It is clear that considerable knowledge is now available to guide intervention not only at the practitioner level, but for policy and lawmakers as well. So many of the program issues related to young offenders relate to the courts, other aspects of the children's mental health and child welfare systems and with the laws that govern practice at both the federal and provincial levels. An integrated children's service delivery system that is mindful of the latest findings from research and program evaluation is now seen as an imperative in capitalizing on current knowledge. Several issues however do stand out in their importance for service development in the young offender field. Several suggestions for future development include:

  • Development of protocols that enhance the implementation of those programs that have shown themselves to be effective already. Implementation with integrity guided by adherence to proven models -- what is referred to in some venues as technology transfer -- is clearly needed to capitalize on the findings from the outcome literature.
  • Emphasis on selected groups that have been largely over-looked in the literature thus far. These groups would include young girls and adolescent women who are beginning to show up in both Canada and the United States' data summaries as an increasingly important subgroup within the young offender population (Statistics Canada, 1998, U.S. Department of Justice, 1998; Matthews, 1998). An additional group for further examination would also include, what Loeber as coined, the very young offender (VYO) (Loeber, 1999). This group is comprised of those youth who, from as early as the age of 4 to 6 years, may begin to demonstrate behaviours that are predictive of later offending. Such work is a necessary precursor to the further development and refinement of prevention and early intervention programs for youths to inhibit their coming into contact with the formal juvenile justice system.
  • Lösel pointed out in his meta-analysis that there continues to be an absence of replication studies that seek further validation for those interventions that have shown them-selves to be effective in reducing offending. It may very well be that through replication and refinements, generalization of those effective strategies can lead to a broader more influential knowledge base to guide the development of the next generation of effective programs.

1 Faculty of Education, University of Western Ontario, and The Family Court Clinic

2 See Andrews, Bonta & Hoge, 1990 for a more complete review of the risk-based concept of classification

3 An overall review of the MST approach can be found in Multisystemic Therapy of Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents by Henggeler and his colleagues published in 1998.


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