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Compendium 2000 on Effective Correctional Programming

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Obstacles to Effective Correctional Program Delivery


While considerable evidence now exists regarding “what works” with respect to offender assessment and treatment practices, recent surveys indicate that very few programs adhere to best practices. This chapter outlines several obstacles to employing best practices, including theoreticism and the failure to effect technology transfer.

Enormous gains in knowledge in the field of corrections have occurred (see Andrews & Bonta, 1998; Cullen & Gendreau, 2000) since Martinson ironically proclaimed in the mid 1970s that “nothing works” (Martinson, 1976).

Well informed corrections professionals can now claim, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that the strongest predictors of criminal behaviour and the most useful risk measures have been determined. Moreover, it is now apparent which types of “treatment” programs produce the greatest reductions in recidivism. While this is a desirable state of affairs and a most useful springboard from which to generate pro-active policies for corrections managers, the sad reality is that much of representative correctional practice bears little resemblance to what we know “works” (Gendreau & Goggin, 2000; Gendreau, Paparozzi, Little, & Goddard, 1993). A recent meta-analysis (Andrews, Dowden, & Gendreau, 1999) reported just 13% of 374 published evaluations of offender treatment programs were based on the principles of effect treatment (i.e., behavioural treatments targeting the criminogenic needs of higher risk offenders). This 13% represents a drop from 20% among studies conducted only a decade or so earlier. Taking the published literature as today's norm, one reads about unstructured programs that target the dubious needs (e.g., personal inadequacy) of lower risk offenders or programs based on simple-minded conceptions of “get-tough” strategies (e.g., electronic monitoring, boot camps). To make matters worse, many programs are delivered in custodial settings where it is difficult to effect behavioural change.

If this is the status of studies in the published literature, what are the conditions “in the real world”? Some assume the worst, that is, effective correctional interventions are virtually non-existent in field settings (Lab & Whitehead, 1990). Gendreau and Goggin (2000) attempted to assess Lab and Whitehead's claim through an evaluation of the quality of correctional treatment programs “in the field” using the Correctional Program Assessment Inventory (CPAI) (Gendreau & Andrews, 1996; soon to be revised as the CPAI -- 2000). Unfortunately, a strong majority of programs did not receive a “passing grade”. Some of the major weaknesses were inadequate assessments, unspecified treatments, a lack of suit-able staff qualifications and training, and programmers' lack of awareness of the “what works” literature (Gendreau & Goggin, 2000).

The reasons for the above-noted scenarios are patently obvious. Many correctional policy makers and managers, particularly in the United States, took Martinson's (1976) proclamation to heart, embracing the new epoch of sanctions as the next “holy grail”. Certainly, the socio-political context of that time was favourably disposed to adopting Martinson's pro-posed view (Cullen & Gendreau, 1989). Others have argued that the correctional system is simply a profit-making enterprise (Shichor, 1995) wherein the incentive to reduce crime through treatment is non-existent. More substantial profits are more easily generated through the construction and operation of additional prisons. Then, there is the assumption by some pundits, policy makers, and politicians that the court of public opinion favours a punitive policy -- an impression which, by the way, is not supported by the data (Cullen, Fisher, & Apple gate, 2000) -- thus providing more support for the use of “get tough” strategies.

How can this paradox be resolved? That is, will there ever be congruence between the “what works” evaluation literature and actual correctional practice? Let us not be naïve; the expectation that social policy in North America in general, and corrections in particular, is primarily driven by the results from objective, valid, replicated experiments (i.e., the “experimenting society”, Campbell, 1969) has been shown to be frightfully gullible (Gendreau & Ross, 1987). But is it too much to expect that, despite the power of common-sense political ideologies, the media, and the North American predilection to rule by market forces, we can aspire to at least a modest correlation between solid experimental evidence and correctional policy? We think not. If we could ensure a hit rate of even 20%–40% between evidence and policy, it would mean that correctional policy would be more rational and cost-effective. It would also pre-empt the cyclical pattern of quick fix solutions or “panaceaphilia” to which we have so readily self-prescribed (Gendreau, 1999; Gendreau & Ross, 1979). Thus, in order to approximate the ideals of the experimenting society we need to address the following issues.


Included among the major obstacles are the theoreticism that exists at the scholarly and policy-making levels, the difficulties in effecting technology transfer from the “experts” to managers and practitioners, and the lack of suitable training programs (Gendreau, 1996).


The practice of theoreticism involves the acceptance or rejection of knowledge relative to one's personal values and experiences (i.e., intuitionism) (Andrews & Bonta, 1998; Gendreau, 1995). Methods of inquiry that are rooted in positivism and inductive reasoning are disparaged. Theoreticism is further complicated by a confusing array of sometimes bewildering value systems among the several disciplines (e.g., criminology, economics, law, management, psychiatry, psychology, social work, and sociology) and occupations (academics, administrators, clinicians, and police) who compete for intellectual hegemony in the criminal justice field (Gendreau & Ross, 1979). Theoreticism is characterized by a profound anti-intellectualism that takes the form of a lack of interest in and/or respect for other sources of knowledge and may be construed as operating in three ways. These include paradigm passion and ethnocentrism, knowledge destructions, and the “MBA” management syndrome (Gendreau, 1999; Latessa & Holsinger, 1998).

Paradigm passion and ethnocentrism

Paradigm passion refers to the realities of the world of work, which often can be quite limited. First, our training, by necessity, is narrowly focussed. Most of us associate intimately with very few colleagues, mainly those from the same social and training background. The mandates of our work settings often impose filters on our professional outlook. For example, we work in a setting in which all of our colleagues have a strong behaviourist orientation; we are exposed only rarely to contrasting viewpoints on human nature. Embracing ideas and activities that are orthogonal to what is considered au courant by the field receives little reinforcement.

Ethnocentrism evolves out of paradigm passion. That is, once we fall into the trap of believing that our disciplinary boundaries and the socio-political context we live in adequately define how things should be, then it is a very small step to tacitly assuming that our reality is indeed superior to others.

For example, we have witnessed expressions of bewilderment on the faces of psychologists after suggesting that one should keep abreast of criminological journals. They were seemingly oblivious to the fact that some criminological and sociological theories (e.g., differential association) have something useful to say about the prediction and treatment of offenders. As a result of reviewing some of the evidence contributed to the American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence and Youth, the first author was struck by the fact that psychologists dealing with juvenile offenders seemed blind to the supporting literature emanating from the adult domain. Similarly, drug abuse treatment evaluators have, with few exceptions, ignored the corrections literature (Gendreau, 1995). All of this is unfortunate, given that the predictors of antisocial behaviour and the principles of effective treatment for juvenile and adult offenders correspond highly, and it is difficult to distinguish between the clientele served by the criminal justice and substance abuse systems.

These examples may also be seen as evidence of a subtle form of ethnocentrism. More blatant examples of ethnocentrism are the fact that some American reviews on treatment effectiveness almost never reference the literature from foreign countries where different approaches to the “crime problem” have been implemented (e.g., less incarceration). Regrettably, there have been occasions where foreign contributions are derogatorily referenced (or worse, not referenced at all) in order, we are surmising, to validate current policies (i.e., punishment rather than rehabilitation) (see Gendreau, Smith, & Goggin, 2001).

Paradigm passion and ethnocentricism can lead to anti-intellectual consequences of staggering proportions. For example, one of the singular features of ineffective treatment strategies is punishing-smarter programs (Gendreau et al., 1993). One would think that program designers and evaluators in this area would have attended to the vast experimental and human behaviour modification literature on punishment and the social psychological research on persuasion and coercion, which provide a convincing rationale as to why punishing-smarter programs should not work. There are, collectively, about 30,000 references covering these two areas. In the entire punishing-smarter literature, just two of these have ever been cited (Gendreau, 1996).

Knowledge destruction

Knowledge destruction is a deliberate and conscious attempt to ignore or dismiss competing findings. This has been a longstanding problem in the offender prediction and treatment literature (Andrews & Wormith, 1989), the reason being that the under-lying support for prediction and treatment initiatives arises more from psychobiological conceptualizations of behaviour than from the social structure perspectives favoured by the disciplines of sociology and criminology. Psychobiological perspectives have been ridiculed on both moral and professional grounds. For example, some criminologists (e.g., Gibbons, 1986) have claimed that the consequence of psychobiological perspectives is repression and terror. Hirschi and Hindelang (1977) have remarked that the primary motive for dismissing disciplines such as psychology is, basically, the protection of the profession of sociology.

A number of arguments have been generated by knowledge destruction proponents to support anti-prediction and treatment views (see Andrews & Bonta, 1998), and can be generally classified within two types (Gendreau, 1995). The first of these arguments concerns methodology and claims that any prediction/treatment study can easily be dismissed because it relies on imperfect theory; fails to rule out other explanations of the results; has possible errors in measurement; and its reported effects are either not large enough or are due to statistical gymnastics. The second type of argument is more ideological in nature and takes three forms. These are: social problems are intractable, and to think that they can be successfully addressed is to live in a chimerical and utopian world; treatment involves a monopoly of values and requires more control than absolute freedom; and the results found today regarding treatment effectiveness will be irrelevant in the future because of changes in the social context. Obviously, no study can escape the above critiques unscathed. Knowledge destruction arguments will win out every time.

The MBA management syndrome

The final form of theoreticism is the MBA management syndrome in criminal justice (Gendreau, Goggin, & Smith, 2000). Over the years, in government in general and criminal justice in particular, we have witnessed a new generation of high-level corrections administrators who are generalists with little or no training in the helping professions and none in the prediction and treatment of criminal behaviour (Gendreau et al., 2000). It seems that the primary qualification for administrators nowadays is general management experience. It also helps to be a political appointee. And among this new breed of administrator, the few who are well-versed in correctional issues rarely stay long in the job.

In our opinion, the “nothing works” credo has also encouraged the MBA management syndrome. Struckoff (1978) was prescient when he predicted that, in the face of “nothing works”, correctional systems without well-trained professionals would basically become fraudulent. With the demise of rehabilitation, the system is being driven by content-free administrators susceptible to political whim in having to embrace the latest panacea. Fortunately, at the federal level in Canada, the Correctional Service of Canada has not fallen prey to such an insidious development (Gendreau et al., 2000, p. 53).

Although theoreticism is anathema to empiricism, a remedy may be forthcoming from what appear to be, at face value, two more barriers. They include issues of technology transfer and training.

Technology transfer

Technology transfer means getting the necessary information into the hands of those who most need it. Unfortunately, the data in this regard indicates that such information is typically not getting into the hands of practitioners. As a case in point, when it comes to substance abuse treatment programs, it has been reported that neither management policies nor the clinical decision process is based upon readings from professional periodicals (Backer, David, & Soucy, 1995). If practitioners do receive information that mediates their approach to treatment, it tends to come from workshops, and, even then, it is only a relatively small percentage among them who profit. We suspect that this problem is not unique to substance abuse programs.

Nonetheless, there is room for a modicum of hope. There are a few measures and intervention strategies now available to programmers, trainers, and policy makers to better effect technology transfer (Backer et al., 1995; Backer, Liberman, & Kuehnel, 1986). Both Andrews and Gendreau, in common with other Compendium contributors, have been involved in technology transfer at the organizational and practitioner levels, in prison, parole, community corrections, and policy settings. In 1979, we reported on our first 19 attempts at technology transfer (Gendreau & Andrews, 1979), and presently we have several dozen case studies in our files. The following guidelines are based on our retrospective and subjective judgements of the conditions associated with successful attempts at technology transfer. Success, defined as having a new program still operating two years after our technology transfer intervention, occurred when:2

  • we were action-oriented and worked “hands on” with staff until they felt secure enough to take over
  • the agency had a senior administrator who championed the new initiatives (or if not, we identified such a person and cultivated his/her interest)
  • we ensured that the socio-political and program values of the agency were congruent with those of ourselves (as change agents)
  • the new initiatives were cost-effective and sustainable.

Such activities, however, are not in themselves sufficient to ensure technology transfer. The opportunity to directly bring about changes in service delivery demands that the knowledge be accessible in the first place. In order to ensure that it is, one must continuously be available to provide workshops, make non-academic conference presentations, encourage responsible media coverage (including being amenable to media appearances), publish newsletters, and use professional associations to lobby for changes within government bureaucracies, private sector organizations, and the body politic.


There are precious few training programs available for people interested in offender treatment. None of the national-level training institutes in the United States specializes in treatment, although they occasionally contract out to experts in the area. No training institutes of this kind exist in Canada. There are several academic-based training programs in the field of law and psychology in the United States, but when we consulted the most recent American Psychological Association graduate training guidelines, only a handful of possibilities for extensive training in clinical work in corrections could be identified.

Yet, even limited exposure can result in measurable impact. For example, implementation of just one program and/or the work of two or three individuals can have a meaningful effect. Some years ago Andrews and Gendreau (1976) initiated an under-graduate training program for corrections, that produced graduates who later went on to work in the field. Psychologists have recently established forensic/law/corrections programs in Ontario and British Columbia (Simourd & Wormith, 1995). We are already reaping the benefits of these programs at the clinical and scholarly levels. That is, criminal justice presentations at the Canadian Psychological Association's annual conferences have increased dramatically in the last five years, and some of the new generation of psychologists are continuing to make research and clinical contributions a priority.

The Department of Justice in New Zealand followed a recommendation (Gendreau & Simpson, 1986) to establish jointly funded government-university training links in correctional psychology. It comes as no surprise that this sort of development, along with the enlightened leadership of psychologists in their Department of Justice, coincides with the fact that correctional psychology is a vibrant discipline in that country and is contributing data that are having an impact on criminal justice policy in that country. Finally, rehabilitation research and practice is beginning to flourish in parts of Germany and Great Britain through the work of a few thoughtful and dedicated psychologists (e.g., Farrington, Hollin, Lösel, McGuire, & Thornton).

In closing, we remain impressed by the fact that most service providers are keen on upgrading their clinical skills. We must give them every opportunity to do so, for it is at this level that change must occur if we are to generate more effective correctional practice.

1 University of New Brunswick, Centre for Criminal Justice Studies

2 For a more complete description of the factors involved in this area consult Gendreau, Goggin, and Smith (1999).


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