The criminal justice system was established to provide a means of holding individuals accountable for their actions when they broke the law. Originally, the system meted out punishment only, often including incarceration, which was intended as a deterrent from future criminal behavior. This meant that conditions of incarceration had to be – by design – terrible enough to motivate a person to refrain from breaking the law for fear of being returned to prison or jail and living under unacceptable conditions. What this approach failed to consider, however, is that incarceration alone does little to prevent future criminal behavior and that those who are driven to crime have a multitude of motivators that must be addressed if there is to be a cessation in that behavior. Consequently, over the past century, the criminal justice system has come to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment alone as a means of preventing recidivism and returning those who commit crimes to society as productive individuals. This paper will synthesize four recent peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic of criminal rehabilitation, focusing on the themes of perspectives on criminal rehabilitation, novel approaches to criminal rehabilitation, and the potential downsides of rehabilitation programs.
Perspectives on Criminal Rehabilitation
In her examination of the criminal justice system and the concept of rehabilitation, Elizabeth Shaw (2019) noted that there seem to be conflicting opinions about the concept of criminal rehabilitation. Her work noted that, while there are several successful programs offered to incarcerated individuals, public perception is that several are ineffective at best. Similarly, McNeil and Graham (2019) note that the concept of rehabilitation is a “…particularly complex and contested concept. (p. 10). Thus, it seems that the very notion of rehabilitation as a potential solution to criminal recidivism is as controversial as are the methods by which criminals are sentenced and given consequences for their crimes.
Derlic (2020) examines the concept of rehabilitation and methods for rehabilitation from the standpoint of understanding; that is, the general public lacks an understanding of the purpose and methods of rehabilitation, often leading to confusion and a general sense that prisoners are being treated in ways that fail to address punishment. Those who hold this view generally express opinions that programs in prison that promote benefits such as education, lifestyle choices, and mindfulness are provided to prisoners at taxpayer expense, further exacerbating the injustices perpetrated on victims and society. Going even farther, Forsberg and Douglas (2020) found that much of current-day popular opinion continues to hold that “…institutions of criminal justice ought or—perhaps more often—ought not to rehabilitate criminal offenders” (p. 1).
These researchers have noted one of the most difficult aspects of criminal rehabilitation – public perception. Implementing effective programs that can impact recidivism rates is difficult as taxpayers lack a fundamental understanding of the purpose and science behind rehabilitation and its efficacy in preventing repeat offenses. Thus, arriving at a common understanding and practice for the provision of rehabilitative programs in the criminal justice system is a difficult undertaking fraught with obstacles and misinformation.
Novel Approaches to Criminal Rehabilitation
A second theme common to the articles reviewed was the need for novel approaches to criminal rehabilitation. This may stem from the desire to address public perception and alleviate concerns about the provision of benefits to criminals rather than the punishment that has long been a main characteristic of the criminal justice system. Whatever the motivating factor, these researchers determined that novel approaches to criminal rehabilitation seem to be the most promising in terms of reducing recidivism regardless of current public perception.
Forsberg and Douglas (2020) focused on the taxonomy of rehabilitation, finding that the concept of rehabilitation is divided into two different segments: the means by which rehabilitation is offered and the ends it is intended to achieve. The researchers found that current modes of rehabilitation have largely been dismissed due to the rhetoric surrounding their application, but that “…it is possible that future modes—which might combine traditional interventions with interventions acting directly on offenders’ brains—will be more effective” (p. 6). These modes, the researchers note, could include several novel approaches not currently explored. However, there is promise in the application of what has been termed “moral bioenhancement” (Shaw, 2020) in rehabilitative programs designed using novel approaches to therapy and adjustments to the perceptions of inmates regarding their own capacity and criminal behaviors.
Specifically addressing novel rehabilitative efforts, Derlic (2020) explored the notion of therapies that directly address the thinking patterns and emotional stability of inmates. She suggested that yoga, mindfulness, and meditation may be effective in helping offenders cope with the rigors of prison life, improve their own physical and mental wellbeing, and generally assume a more positive outlook on their prospects both while incarcerated and after release (Derlic, 2020). Further, McNeill and Graham (2019) found that rehabilitative programs that were most effective were those that addressed the four domains of existence: moral, personal, social, and legal. They believe this framework to be useful in the creation of novel rehabilitative programs that not only work but are accepted by society as means by which criminal recidivism can be reduced.
Potential Downsides of Rehabilitation Programs
Finally, each of the articles synthesized for this work noted the potential downside of rehabilitation programs, apart and aside from negative public perceptions. Forsberg and Douglas (2020) noted that traditional psychotherapy has proven less effective at preventing criminal behavior and recidivism than would be acceptable, leading to further questions about the purpose of rehabilitation entirely. Similarly, while noting the benefits of a four-domain approach, Derlic (2020) was pragmatic in noting that much of what has been done in current rehabilitation efforts has fallen short of expectations.
Shaw (2020) notes the near-wholesale objection to moral bioenhancement of current offenders, stating that it will take considerable effort to overcome objections and create enough evidence of efficacy to make this a plausible effort. McNeill and Graham (2019), meanwhile, continue to note the ambiguity in data that plagues rehabilitative efforts and the need for a clearer understanding of what works and what doesn’t through disaggregated data for specific offender types. Both of these researchers point out the fundamentally problematic nature of criminal rehabilitation and currently available data on its efficacy.
It is clear from a review and synthesis of the available literature that there is little in the way of agreement on the concept of criminal rehabilitation. Some schools of thought still hold that rehabilitation should not be the focus of the criminal justice system, while others support rehabilitation but object to its current form. Whatever the situation, it is obvious that greater research in to novel forms of rehabilitative programs can only add information and data upon which future generations of lawmakers can base funding decisions and support for criminal rehabilitation programs. By gathering data and accepting that current approaches may fall short in the court of public opinion as well as in efficacy, current researchers may be able to overcome the problematic dichotomies of rehabilitation and arrive at a common understanding of what should be done to reduce criminal thinking and behavior and address recidivism rates, allowing the formerly incarcerated to return to society with a hope of reintegration and the conduct of a lawful existence.
Derlic, D. (2020). A systematic review of literature: Alternative offender rehabilitation—Prison yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 26(4), 361-375.
Forsberg, L., & Douglas, T. (2020). What is criminal rehabilitation?. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 1-24.
McNeill, F., & Graham, H. (2019). Conceptualizing rehabilitation: Four forms, two models, one process, and a plethora of challenges. In The Routledge Companion to Rehabilitative Work in Criminal Justice (pp. 10-19). Routledge.
Shaw, E. (2019). Counterproductive criminal rehabilitation: Dealing with the double-edged sword of moral bioenhancement via cognitive enhancement. International journal of law and psychiatry.
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