What is the most effective method for preventing recidivism?

This short essay was written in partial completion of the “Understanding Victims and Offenders” course, offered online as one of four courses in the Graduate Certificate in Forensic Psychology with Curtin University. In its original form, it received 41/50. However, based on the feedback received, I have attempted to include further detail of studies, in particular by the inclusion of significant statistical results.

According to the Australian Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services (2022), 45.2% of adult prisoners return to prison within two years, and 53.1% of prisoners return to corrective services (including community corrections) within 2 years. Ever since Martinson’s “nothing works” essay (Martinson, 1974), much research has sought to address the limitations raised by Martinson to find “what works” in reducing recidivism (e.g., Andrews et al. 1990a; Andrews et al., 1990b). This is significant both in terms of effective outcomes for ex-prisoners as well as justifying the expense of service provision by solid evidence of benefits to the community.

“Recidivism” has been defined in several different ways, including re-arrest, re-conviction, re-incarceration, parole violations (Hall, 2015; Katsiyannis et al., 2018). This diversity of definitions can make comparing results of research with each other. The practical operationalisation of recidivism as a measure to gauge the effectiveness of correctional programmes primarily relies upon the use of official records (Pham et al., 2021). While recidivism is commonly understood to mean re-offending, in reality, the measure of recidivism records a formal process of engagement between an ex-offender and the criminal justice system itself, whether as police, courts, and corrective services (whether prisons or community corrections) (Wright & Cesar, 2013). Wright and Cesar (2013) highlight this relational aspect of recidivism in developing a multidimensional model of individual-, community-, and system-level components of recidivism. While increases in recidivism may be related to an increase in offending, it could just as easily be related to a more effective criminal detection system.

This essay will first address the measurement of effectiveness itself. Next, the essay will turn to compare and contrast education and employment programs, both considering the strengths and limitations of these programs, as well as critically examining the literature itself. Finally, the essay will draw implications from these findings and provide a few recommendations for practical implementation for Queensland Corrective Services.

Measures of Effectiveness

A useful model in considering the effectiveness of correctional programs is the risk-need-responsivity (‘RNR’) model, developed by Andrews et al. (1990b), and further developed since (e.g., Andrews et al., 2011; Taxman, 2014; Newsome & Cullen, 2017). The risk principle relates to the prediction of risk of recidivism based on static (unchangeable factors, such as age, gender, criminal history) and dynamics factors (anti-social personality, social supports, substance use) in matching offenders to an appropriate level of treatment. The need principle builds on the risk principle in asserting that dynamic factors should be focused on, otherwise known as criminogenic needs. Finally, the responsivity principle relates to tailoring the most effective mode of treatment delivery to the individual.

While the RNR model focuses on the individual, Wright and Cesar (2013) developed a multidimensional model of individual-, community-, and systemic-level components of recidivism risk, and the interaction between these different levels, with an emphasis on the need for social supports in helping to reduce risk of recidivism. Similar multi-level models have been utilised in considering effectiveness of health care and mental health services (Mitchell & Pattison, 2012; Hesselink et al., 2013). Thus, I will consider both the RNR principles and Wright and Cesar (2013) in my evaluation of education and employment programs for reducing recidivism.

In the next section, I will discuss the research related to correctional education programs (e.g., Bozick et al., 2018), correctional employment programs (Newton et al., 2018), before turning to a recent study which explores the effectiveness of combining education, employment, together with cognitive-behavioural therapies (‘CBT’) (Hsieh et al., 2022).

Discussion of Correctional Treatment Methods

Correctional Education Programs

Basic educational programs are a regular provision within incarceration settings. In 2018, Bozick et al. (2018) conducting a meta-analysis of US 57 primary empirical studies over 37 years which were (i) evaluated an academic or vocational program, (ii) utilized reduction of recidivism or post-release outcomes as a measure, and that (iii) provided a control group for comparison. This analysis examined whether educational programming provided to prisoner had a significant effect in reducing recidivism and supported post-release employment outcomes. Educational programs were defined as both academic and vocational curriculum provided by an instructor, with the outcome being a degree, licence or certification on completion (Ibid., 2018, pp. 396-397). It found that inmates engaged in education programs are 32% less likely to re-offend than those who did not participate in correctional education programs (Ibid, 2018, p. 409).

Similarly, Ellison et al. (2017) conducted a meta-analysis of 18 studies related to education programs effects on recidivism, in particular asking the question as to whether the distinction in outcomes could be explained by diverse definitions of recidivism and whether the level of education had any impact on the outcome. While this study found evidence that education programs reduced recidivism rates by around 33%, they discussed the importance of a more detailed identification of what kind of education is being provided, and how it is being delivered, rather than just a general examination of how and why education programs “work” (Ibid., 2017, pp. 124-125).

Hall (2015) developed a typology, which included the level of education being provided (secondary education vs tertiary education), whether a prisoner participated to completion, etc. Similarly, Jensen and Reed (2006) found that adult basic education and secondary education had a more significant effect on reducing recidivism than vocational and post-secondary education, while “effectiveness of life skills” programs were still unknown in terms of their effectiveness.

By contrast, Cho and Tyler (2013) found that while education programs appeared to support post-release employment outcomes, they did not find a significant effect on recidivism rates. However, they raised the question that cognitive skills associated with education may not in themselves be enough to support the kind of fundamental changes in how individuals evaluate their future choices to commit crime or not. This could also tie into the Wright and Cesar model, in which education programs may focus purely on the individual, and in particular, the intellectual skills of an individual, while neglecting other aspects of the individual’s life as well as the broader community needs that contribute to re-offending.

Another interesting point was raised by Mottern et al. (2013), that successful education programs require a degree of co-operation, which enforced programming is unlikely to achieve. Similarly, Panitsides and Moussiou (2019) looked how motivation is an important aspect of successful educational programs, with the top motivators being escapism (being able to focus on education helped prisoners to forget they were in prison), the potential for successful completion supporting parole and early release. Similarly, McKinney and Cotronea (2011) found that, in applying self-determination theory to evaluate education programs, specific elements of programs that fostered feelings of competence and individual autonomy in learning had a more significant impact on program success. As discussed below, Hsieh et al. (2022) could bridge this gap in considering combining elements of CBT with education or vocational training programs.

Correctional Employment Programs

In considering employment programs within prisons, this section will explore studies related to vocational training, work-release programs, and working while incarcerated in prison industries. Having identified the need for more systematic analysis of the effectiveness of vocational training programs on recidivism, Newton et al. (2018) conducted a systematic review of experimental and quasi-experimental studies, to identify some key factors which enhanced their effectiveness. The most effective programs offer a more holistic and comprehensive approach, including drug and alcohol programs, housing assistance, and basic education. Similarly, it was found that where programs were individually targeted to the needs and motivations of program participants, they were more successful.

An earlier study by Bouffard et al. (2000) conducted a systematic review of studies related to vocational training, correction industries and community work-release programs, which found that vocational training was most effective when reducing recidivism was an explicit motivating factor in the provision of the program, and not merely seeking better employment outcomes. Correctional industries were set up in quite diverse ways, and so there wasn’t a clear outcome in terms of what was effective. While the study overall provided some evidence of reduced recidivism among participants, the conclusiveness of the results was impacted by an overall lack of scientific rigour (Bouffard et al., 2000, p. 32).

A recent research paper (Cook et al., 2015) applied randomized controlled trials on re-entry work-release programs implemented by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. They followed ex-offenders post-release after 1 year, and found a reduction around 13-15% in recidivism rates. It also found the programs were effective in terms of cost-benefit analysis within areas of serious violence and gang involvement. Another study focused on 16 innovative re-entry programs provided to women of colour which found that providing specially designed, culturally-sensitive programs training women in birth support for other women had reduced recidivism among its participants to near-zero (McLemore & Hand, 2017). Finally, Weisburd et al. (2017) involved a study of a work-release program in Israel, which incorporated elements of CBT into the program, which involved a positive social environment, counselling and therapy, and this integrative approach was found to provide more effective outcomes in reducing reoffending. Participants in these programs were found to be 42.6% less likely to recidivate after 1 year, which reduced to around 32% less likely in 5 or more years.

Similar to the studies referred to in discussing motivation in education programs, Varghese (2013) looked at integrative ways that theories related to motivation could be used to aid in the effectiveness of vocational education and employment. Richard (2014) particularly focused on the significant impact that inmate perceptions have on the effectiveness of engagement with prison industries. As identified in both discussion of education and employment programs, these elements of motivation lead well into the consideration of how CBT could enhance the effectiveness of these more traditional prison programs.

Most Effective Method as a Combination of Education, Employment and CBT

Although most studies have sought to evaluate the effectiveness of an individual correctional program, or similar programs at multiple locations (such as systematic reviews or meta-analyses), Hsieh et al. (2022) examined whether the overall effectiveness of a correctional program could be enhanced by a combination of methods. Set within the Washington State Department of Corrections, the study evaluated the effectiveness of educational programs, vocational training and CBT programs in isolation and compared them to both control cohorts who were not engaged in any of these programs, and cohorts who engaged in two in combination and all three. Data about participants included distinctions between misdemeanours, violent felony and non-violent felony, as well as age, gender, race, among other characteristics.

Overall, the results corroborated previously discussed studies in that recidivism rates for individuals incarcerated for violent felonies who participated in education, employment or CBT in isolation were reduced as compared with offenders who did not participate. Also, it found that a combination of basic education and vocational training led to both reduction in criminal recidivism up to two years post-release by 2% as well as better employment outcomes post-release. Also, a combination of basic education and CBT reduced violent recidivism by around 5% and supported the development of pro-social behaviours. Finally, it did find that a combination of all three programs seems to enhance the impact of each of the programs in isolation, reducing recidivism among violent offenders by up to 9% as compared with single programs in isolation.

The primary limitation of this study is that it was exploratory in nature, as similar studies of combinations of methods have not been common. It also was conducted within Washington State in a primarily white, male offending population. However, as a foundation for further study, it did highlight the effectiveness of a combination of treatment programs and makes sense within the context of the RNR model and Wright and Cesar’s multi-dimensional model, in that emphasises both the individual’s needs, social supports, and the importance of a positive correctional environment which provides a clear aim for not only reducing crime but supporting a post-release employment outcome.

Implications and Recommendations

Queensland Corrective Services provide education and vocational training programs throughout Queensland prisons (Queensland Corrective Services, 2021). By providing CBT together with education, or integrating CBT into employment programs, the ability to tailor treatment and care for prisoners to their criminogenic needs would increase the effectiveness of these programs to reduce recidivism.

Another implication of the Hseih et al. (2022) study, however, is that “over-programming” can have a negative effect. Consideration must be given to the implications of Mottern et al. (2013), Panitsides and Moussiou (2019), and Varghese (2013), that it is important to consider ways to motivate individuals to participate and complete the programs to receive the best benefit. Ultimately, if individuals aren’t motivated, then the expense of providing these kinds of programs will be wasted.


In conclusion, having considered the limitations of recidivism studies, which primarily rely on official records as data, it is important to consider the individual-, community-, and system-level components of the phenomenon of recidivism, and to consider the long-standing importance of considering risk, need and responsivity principles, in evaluating the effectiveness of programs. While the evidence points towards educational and employment programs having some level of effectiveness, more recent research suggests that a combination of two or more, and with elements of cognitive-behavioural therapies, is the most effective method for reducing recidivism, both in terms of the impact on ex-offenders, and in terms of the practical outlay and cost to government in funding corrective services.


Andrews, D. A., Bonta, J., & Hoge, R. D. (1990a). Classification for effective rehabilitation: Rediscovering psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17(1), 19-52. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0093854890017001004

Andrews, D. A., Bonta, J., & Wormith, J. S. (2011). The risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model: Does adding the good lives model contribute to effective crime prevention? Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38(7), 735-755. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0093854811406356

Andrews, D. A., Zinger, I., Hoge, R. D., Bonta, J., Gendreau, P., & Cullen, F. T. (1990b). Does correctional treatment work? A clinically relevant and psychologically informed meta-analysis. Criminology, 28(3), 369-404. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.1990.tb01330.x

Bouffard, J., Mackenzie, D. L., & Hickman, L. (2000). Effectiveness of vocational education and employment programs for adult offenders. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 31(1-2), 1-41. https://doi.org/10.1300/J076v31n01_01

Bozick, R., Steele, J., Davis, L., & Turner, S. (2018). Does providing inmates with education improve postrelease outcomes? A meta-analysis of correctional education programs in the United States. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 14(3), 389-428. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11292-018-9334-6

Cho, R. M., & Tyler, J. H. (2013). Does prison-based adult basic education improve postrelease outcomes for male prisoners in Florida? Crime & Delinquency, 59(7), 975-1005. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128710389588

Cook, P. J., Kang, S., Braga, A. A., Ludwig, J., O’Brien, M. E. (2015). An experimental evaluation of a comprehensive employment-oriented prisoner re-entry program. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 31(3), 355-382. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10940-014-9242-5

Ellison, M., Szifris, K., Horan, R., & Fox, C. (2017). A rapid evidence assessment of the effectiveness of prison education in reducing recidivism and increasing employment. Probation Journal, 64(2), 108-128. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0264550517699290

Hall, L. (2015). Correctional education and recidivism: Toward a tool for reduction. Journal of Correctional Education, 66(2), 4-27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26507655

Hesselink, G., Vernooij-Dassen, M., Pijnenborg, L., Barach, P., Gademan, P., Dudzik-Urbaniak, E., Flink, M., Orrego, C., Toccafondi, G., Johnson, J. K., Schoonhoven, L., & Wollersheim, H. (2013). Organizational culture: An important context for addressing and improving hospital to community patient discharge. Medical Care, 51(1), 90-98. https://dx.doi.org/10.1097/MLR.0b013e31827632ec

Hsieh, M.-L., Chen, K.-J., Choi, P.-S., & Hamilton, Z.K. (2022). Treatment combinations: The joint effects of multiple evidence-based interventions on recidivism reduction. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 49(6), 911-929. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/00938548211052584

Jensen, E. L., & Reed, G. E. (2006). Adult correctional education programs: An update on current status based on recent studies. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 44(1), 81-98. https://doi.org/10.1300/J076v44n01_05

Katsiyannis, A., Whitford, D., Zhang, D., & Gage, N. (2018). Adult recidivism in United States: A meta-analysis 1994-2015. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(3), 686-696. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-017-0945-8

Martinson, R. (1974). What works? – questions and answers about prison reform. The Public Interest, 35(2), 22-54. https://www.nationalaffairs.com/storage/app/uploads/public/58e/1a4/ba7/58e1a4ba7354b822028275.pdf

McKinney, D., & Cotronea, M. A. (2011). Using self-determination theory in correctional education program development. Journal of Correctional Education, 62(3), 175-193. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23282711

McLemore, M. R., & Hand, Z. W. (2017). Making the case for innovative reentry employment programs: previously incarcerated women as birth doulas – a case study. International Journal of Prisoner Health, 13(3-4), 219-227. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPH-07-2016-0026

Mitchell, P. F., & Pattison, P. E. (2012). Organizational culture, intersectoral collaboration and mental health care. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 26(1), 32-59. https://doi.org/10.1108/14777261211211089

Mottern, R.C., Davis, A., & Ziegler, M. F. (2013). Forced to Learn: Community-based correctional education. Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology, 1(2), 317-345. https://doi.org/10.21428/88de04a1.88de8c1c

Newsome, J., & Cullen, F. T. (2017). The risk-need-responsivity model revisited: Using biosocial criminology to enhance offender rehabilitation. Criminal Justice & Behavior, 44(8), 1030-1049. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0093854817715289

Newton, D., Day, A., Giles, M., Wodak, J., Graffam, J. & Baldry, E. (2018). The impact of vocational education and training programs on recidivism: A systematic review of current experimental evidence. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(1), 187-207. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0306624X16645083

Panitsides, E. A., & Moussiou, E. (2019). What does it take to motivate inmates to participate in prison education? An exploratory study in a Greek prison. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 25(2), 157-177. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1477971419840667

Pham, A. T., Nunes, K. L., Maimone, S., & Hermann, C. A. (2021). How accurately can researchers measure criminal history, sexual deviance, and risk of sexual recidivism from self-report information alone? Journal of Sexual Aggression, 27(1), 106-119. https://doi.org/10.1080/13552600.2020.1741709

Productivity Commission. (2022). Report on Government Services. Australian Government. https://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2022

Queensland Corrective Services. (2021). Annual Report, 2020-2021. Queensland Government. https://www.publications.qld.gov.au/dataset/e18fd278-6c07-4c63-bb0d-258948ccca71/resource/d35ea731-82e4-4cc7-9650-6b502fd354af/download/2020-21-qcs-annual-report.pdf

Taxman, F. S. (2014). Second generation of RNR: The importance of systemic responsivity in expanding core principles of responsivity. Federal Probation, 78(2), 32-40. https://www.uscourts.gov/file/3305/download

Varghese, F. P. (2013). Vocational interventions with offenders: Interdisciplinary research, theory, and integration. The Counseling Psychologist, 41(7), 1011-1039. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0011000012462369

Weisburd, D., Hasisi, B., Shoham, E., Aviv, G., & Haviv, N. (2017). Reinforcing the impacts of work release on prisoner recidivism: the importance of integrative interventions. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 13, 241-264. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11292-017-9285-3

Wright, K. A., & Cesar, G. T. (2013). Toward a more complete model of offender reintegration: Linking the individual-, community-, and system-level components of recidivism. Victims & Offenders, 8(4), 373-398. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2013.803004