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The Future Of Rehabilitation

In the early 1970s commentators asked, "Is rehabilitation dead?" Attacked by both liberals and conservatives and with seemingly scant empirical support, offender treatment appeared ready to be relegated to the correctional dustbin. Rehabilitation programs, however, did not go away, even if this was often because it was more convenient to keep them than to get rid of them. Indeed, programming continued inside and outside prisons, even though the United States was in the midst of an unprecedented campaign to "get tough" on crime that has resulted in approximately a sevenfold increase in the prison population since the early 1970s (Currie; Mauer). Honest debates can take place over whether the increased imprisonment was necessary and/or effective, but it is clear that merely locking up offenders is not the full answer to America's crime problem. The question thus arises, what else can we do to reduce recidivism and protect public safety?

At least part of that answer will involve attempts to rehabilitate offenders. It is noteworthy that contrary to the claims often made in the media, study after study shows (1) that a sizable minority of the American public believes that rehabilitation should be the main goal of corrections and (2) that a substantial majority believes that treating offenders is an important goal of corrections. To be sure, citizens want dangerous offenders locked away and are not reluctant to support harsh sentences. Still, they also are open to community-based options for nonviolent offenders, and they believe that rehabilitation should be a core part of corrections inside and outside prisons (Cullen, Fisher, and Applegate). In short, the often-stated idea that the "public won't support rehabilitation" simply is not true.

In an age when politicians seem at times to govern by what the polls say, the receptivity of the public to rehabilitation is significant. Still, the question of effectiveness—does rehabilitation reduce recidivism?—will remain central to rehabilitation's future. It is clear that rehabilitation is not a panacea capable of saving every criminal from a wayward life. But it is equally clear that treatment programs are more effective than doing nothing with offenders and more effective than punitively oriented programs. Further, in the last decade or so, criminologists have made important strides in uncovering how best to reform offenders, including those who are serious chronic criminals. This knowledge about the principles of effective intervention is likely to grow and be refined in the future immediately ahead.

Perhaps the largest challenge for the field of corrections is whether the emerging knowledge base on effective rehabilitation will be used or ignored. Implementing effective programs can be daunting when resources are limited, when staff training is poor and not conducted according to any professional standards, and when leaders of correctional systems and agencies are antagonistic to research knowledge. Even so, there are clear signs in numerous jurisdictions around the United States that a "what works" movement is under way. As criminologists articulate a more precise blueprint for how to intervene effectively with offenders, it becomes increasingly attractive to do what works rather than to do what fails. Further, the press for accountability and to use public monies responsibly may well place pressures on even reluctant correctional officials to replace failed practices with "best practices" (Rhine).

There is a final reason why rehabilitation is likely to reassert itself as a correctional philosophy: it appeals to a core theme in American culture—one present across time—that offenders, especially young ones, are not beyond redemption. We are, after all, the very people who founded the "penitentiary," reaffirmed rehabilitation in the "new penology," and chose to call our prisons "correctional" institutions. We are perhaps more skeptical than our predecessors about the extent to which criminals can be reformed. Even so, we share their vision that we lose something as a people when we reduce the correctional enterprise to inflicting pain, ware-housing offenders, and depleting the system of all hope and compassion (Clear). There is, in the end, something ennobling about rehabilitation—something that calls us to do good for offenders not because we must but because such action symbolizes the kind of individuals and nation we wish to be (Cullen and Gilbert).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRehabilitation - What Is Rehabilitation?, Rehabilitation Across Time, Correctional Programs In The United States, Does Correctional Rehabilitation Work?