Do Offense Specific Intervention Programs Work?

Correctional PsychiatryPunishment within the criminal justice system remains the cornerstone and is one of the primary objectives of sentencing in all western countries (Ward and Salmon 2009). As Foucault (1995) explains, the prime purpose of punishment is based around reducing the desire that makes crime attractive and to make the penalty to be feared.

The process of offender rehabilitation is based around two distinctive and overlapping domains within the criminal justice system and correctional intervention programs. The criminal justice system’s approach is based on punishment and risk management, while correctional treatment programs are focused on assisting people to lead more fulfilling and less harmful lives (Casey, Day, Vess and Ward, 2013).

I’ve written about risk assessment tools and theoretical frameworks that are used within correctional intervention programs to identify the level of risk, treatment targets, and clinical intervention when providing offense specific intervention.

This blog will discuss the effectiveness (if any) of using offense specific intervention programs within correctional environments.

When working within the forensic environment, it is important to have a clear understanding of the theoretical frameworks (Good Lives Model and/or Risk, Needs, Responsivity Model) when it comes to conducting clinical assessments to identify treatment targets, level or risk and the therapeutic intervention (Crighton and Towl, 2008).

Andrews and Bonta (2003) explain that to deliver effective offense specific intervention to individuals, treatment should be focused on the relevant behavioral, attitudinal, and lifestyle factors that were directly associated with the offending behavior.

Laws and Ward (2011) held a similar view, stating that to assist individuals to change their criminal dispositions a value – laden approach is necessary. This is one of the two components of rehabilitation whereby an offender has been judged to have acted wrongly and illegally, and therefore has been punished accordingly.

There is a second component of rehabilitation based on capability building. This approach is primarily focused on assisting the individual in acquiring the skills and values required to lead more fulfilling and less harmful lives. (Casey, Day, Vess and Ward, 2013).

The big question is: Do offense specific intervention programs work?

This discussion will be focused mainly towards individuals who have been convicted of a sexual offense. When it comes to reviewing the research of risk of recidivism, Gelb (2007) explains that the critical methodology that has substantial implications for interpreting how recidivism is defined are the rates of reconviction and measures such as returned to prison.

Marques (1999) acknowledges that despite the efforts of many clinicians, the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs continues to be debated.

She reported that part of the problem is that relatively few well-designed studies pertaining to treatment effectiveness have been conducted and that opportunities for a controlled experimentation in the field are rare.

This situation is largely because of the  major investment of time and resources that follow-up studies require.

However, there has been research conducted into the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs as reported by  Maletzky and Steinhauser (2002) who spoke of how Hall (1995) had conducted a meta-analysis and concluded that cognitive behavioral treatments were significantly effective, with community based treatment showing better effects than institutionally-based treatment (confounded by seriousness of offense history).

Higher recidivism rates were found in the majority of untreated, as opposed to treated, samples. One finding was especially optimistic that longer follow-ups led to more significant treatment effects when comparisons to control groups were available.

Low Rates?

In relation to sex offenses, Gelb (2007) advised there are low rates of reporting to police and therefore, any studies of recidivism of sexual offenses will necessarily represent an under-count of offending behavior.

According to Smallbone and Wortley (2000), there has been a growing body of literature that links sexual and other criminal offenses. They note that while incarcerated, sexual offenders are more likely to have previous convictions for non-sexual offenses than for sexual offenses and that after release from prison, these individuals are more likely to commit new non-sexual offenses than new sexual offenses.

Lievore (2004) explains that research based on both official reports of offending and self-reports of offenders shows that sex offenders typically have lower rates of recidivism than do other kinds of offenders and that these rates vary for different sub-groups of sex offender.

In relation to whether offense specific intervention programs work, it remains unclear and additional research needs to be conducted.  As Lievore (2004) explains, it is not very clear whether the low rates of sexual recidivism is because of  a lack of opportunity to re-offend, rehabilitation (or treatment), or non-detection of subsequent sex crimes.


Andrews D. A, and Bonta J. (2003) The Psychology of Criminal Conduct 3rd edn Cincinnati OH: Anderson Publishing Co

Casey, S. Day, A. Vess, J. & Ward, T. (2013) Foundations of Offender Rehabilitation MPG Books, Great Britain

Crighton, A. D & Towl, J, G (2003) Psychology in Prisons Blackwell Publishing, United Kingdom

Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline & Punishment – The Birth of the Prison Vintage Books A Division of Random House, INC, New York

Gelb, K. (2007) Recidivism of Sex Offenders Research Paper Sentencing Advisory Council

Laws, D.R & Ward, T. (2011) Desistance and Sexual Offending: Alternatives to Throwing Away the Key. New York, NY: Guildford Press

Lievore, D. (2004). Recidivism of Sexual Assault Offenders: Rates, Risk Factors and Treatment Efficacy. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Maletzky, M. B. & Steinhauser, C. (2002) A 25 Year Follow-Up of Cognitive/Behavioural Therapy with 7,275 Sexual Offenders Behavioural Modification Vol. 26. No 2. April 2002 Sage Publication

Smallbone, S. & Wortley, R. (2000). Child Sexual Abuse in Queensland: Offender Characteristics & Modus Operandi. Brisbane: Queensland Crime Commission.

Marques, J. (1999) How to Answer the Question “Does Sex Offender Treatment Work?” Journal of Interpersonal Violence Vol. 14 No. 4 April 1999 Sage Publication, Inc.

Ward, T. & Salmon, K. (2009) The Ethics of Punishment: Correctional Practice Implications. Aggression and Violent Behaviour.

Tanya Jordan is an experienced Forensic Social Worker and an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker with T n J’s Consulting and Support Services.



Do Offense Specific Intervention Programs Work?


APA Reference
Jordan,, T. (2019). Do Offense Specific Intervention Programs Work?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Sep 2019
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