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Rehabilitation The Key In Changing Offender Behaviour Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1810 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Behaviour can be explained through biological, learning or cognitive theories. This essay briefly analyses each of them in order to come to an agreement whether prison-based rehabilitation programmes should be abolished in times of financial cutbacks. Research evidence indicates that although much of our behaviour has biological roots as suggested by twin and adoption studies, it does not necessarily mean behaviour cannot be changed. Applications of cognitive and learning theories have proven that behaviour can be changed for the better. Although only certain types of rehab programs are effective in changing criminal behaviour, it nevertheless implies that behaviour is more nurture than nature.

Rehabilitation: The Key in Changing Offender Behaviour

In recent decades, incarceration rates (ABS) have displayed an upward trend across Australia. This, along with an increasing rate of recidivism(ABS) has contributed to a growing amount of criticism on the effectiveness of prison based rehabilitation programmes.

According to Vennard, Sugg and Hedderman (1997) prison based programmes designed to rehabilitate offenders have been criticised on two main grounds. Firstly, that they over simplify the roots of offending behaviour by not considering other determinants of crime and secondly, that they are ineffective at changing criminal behaviour. This “nothing works” (Martinson, 1974) attitude has changed in recent years to a cautious optimism, supported by growing research that some types of intervention can be effective at reducing re-offending. It is therefore paramount that some, if not most rehabilitation programs continue to operate despite financial cutbacks.

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The effectiveness of rehabilitation programs depends on how criminal behaviour is acquired. Is it the result of an individual’s genetic makeup that makes them a criminal or is it the environment in which they are raised that governs their behaviour? From the biological theories of behaviour to the behaviourist perspective on learning, there is one general theme of how “genetic and environmental variables interact” (Burton, 2009).

Biological accounts of behaviour

Family studies (Joseph, 2001; Raine, 2003; Schmitz, 2003) concluded that genetics can cause a tendency for criminal behaviour but they also found that an individual’s personality could be, and often is, modified by the environment. Twin studies done by comparing identical twins or fraternal twins, is a type of genetic study that confirms this. Tuvblad, Eley and Lichtenstein (2005) examined 1226 pairs of twins for signs of heritability in anti-social behaviour (ASB) and found that although ASB in females were explained by “genetic influences”, males showed “no significant mediation between aggressive behaviour and heritability”. Furthermore, they found “significant shared environmental effects” in males. This suggests that the presence of ASB, a major factor in criminal behaviour (Joesph, 2001;Morley & Hall, 2003) can be altered through environmental influences and therefore changeable through rehabilitation programs.

On the other hand, adoption studies suggest that behaviour is more nature than nurture. In a review of adoption studies, Joseph (2001) found that most adoption studies concluded that adopted-away children who were born to parents with a criminal background were more likely to engage in criminal activity than adopted children whose parents had no criminal background. However Joseph (2001) also established that the majority of adoption studies found no significant role of genetics in violent crime. This suggests that there are some environmental influences on behaviour

Besides heritability, certain biological chemicals are also known to influence behaviour. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is an enzyme that has been shown to be related to ASB.A study by Elliot (2000) found that low MAO activity results in a lack of control which can lead to impulsivity and aggression, and by further association, ASB. Aggressiveness and impulsivity can also be increased by the neuro-chemical serotonin. As Lowenstein (2003) states, “studies point to serotonin as one of the most important central neuro-transmitters underlying the modulation of impulsive aggression”. Since chemical levels can be changed through diet, by incorporating a special diet in a rehabilitation program, it can improve the chances of successfully rehabilitating an offender. Although there is a lack of recent research evidence into this possibility, several past studies (Schauss 1981;) Schoenthaler, 1983 ) suggest that it is possible to manipulate behaviour through diet.

Behaviour through learning

The notion that criminal behaviour is a learned behaviour has been around for a long time. Sutherland (1947) put forth the theory of differential association which postulates that criminal behaviour is learned in association with those who have criminal attitudes and values. An individual learns “favourable or unfavorable definitions of the legal code” and he or she learns criminal behaviour if they accumulate “an excess of definitions favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violations of law” (Sutherland 1947). This theory suggests that behaviour can be changed. According to the theory, individuals become criminals principally because they have been isolated from groups whose behaviour are law-abiding or because of some circumstances have made them associate themselves with criminals frequently. Therefore, if criminals are to be changed, they must become members of “anti-criminal” groups or their present pro-criminal group relations must be changed (Cressy, 1955). Cressey (1963) did a follow-up experiment on drug addicts by applying his principles formulated in his 1955 article on the differential association theory on a drug rehabilitation program. Sixty-six percent of the drug addicts who stayed on the program for at least three months and 86% of those who remained on the program for at least seven months did not revert back to drug use.

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The differential association theory is not perfect however. Burgess and Akers (1969) criticised Sutherland’s theory due to its lack of attention on individualism and failure to take into account of personality traits. Using Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning, they further developed Sutherland’s differential association theory to address these issues. They called their revision, the differential association-reinforcement theory. Burgess and Akers(1969) argue that criminal behaviour can be explained as “a function of the reinforcement or punishment a person receives from the environment”. In other words, behaviour that produces a reward will tend to be performed more frequently in the future, while behaviour that is followed by punishment will tend to decrease in frequency. Differential reinforcement occurs when under certain environmental conditions, one behaviour leads to greater or more frequent rewards than does another alternative behaviour. The behaviour that receives greater reinforcement- e.g criminal behaviour-becomes dominant over the alternative behaviour, such as law-abiding behaviour. Consequently, through this process of differential reinforcement, certain environmental conditions can increase the probability of criminal acts by individuals. A study on the effects of imprisonment(punishment) and probation (reinforcement) on juvenile offenders demonstrated the effectiveness of applying the differential reinforcement theory in rehabilitation. Tsytsarev , Manger and Lodrini (2000) found that the incarcerated group had a higher likelihood of re-offending whilst the probation group had a lower likelihood of re-offending.

Cognitive approach

Among the range of offender programmes designed to reintegrate offenders into society, those which are increasingly favoured are those that seek to address an offenders way of thinking, reasoning and associated behaviour, otherwise known as “cognitive-behavioural” techniques (Vennard et al, 1997). Cognitive-behavioural techniques assume that offenders are shaped by their environment and have failed to learn certain ways of behaving (McGuire, 1995;Vannard et al, 1997). This does not mean criminal behaviour is solely attributed to individual factors. McGuire (1995) explains that it also takes into account the social conditions which affect individual development and is not in conflict with other explanations of criminal behaviour, such as the theory of differential association. Rehabilitation programmes based on this approach tend to teach offenders to confront their crime, understand why it happened and develop ways of controlling their behaviour.

The success rates of these rehabilitation programs have been well documented. Feindler and Ecton (1986) (as cited in Vennard et al, 1997) developed a programme for young offenders which successfully taught them how to control anger.(example) while McDougall et al. (1987) reported significant anger reductions among inmates in young offenders’ institutions who had undergone an anger management programme combining cognitive procedures, specifically self-instruction and self- statements to use in situations of anger. More recently, Lipsey (2009) examined the effectiveness of various intervention programs, including rehabilitation. Of the 548 interventions analysed, he concluded that punishment or deterrence-based interventions such as boot camps actually increased recidivism. In contrast, programmes that were “multi-model” and had a more behavioural or “skills-oriented” had the most impact in reducing recidivism. In a different research review, Landenberger and Lipsey(2005) showed that programs based on cognitive behavioural techniques are effective with juvenile and adult criminal offenders in various criminal justice settings, including prison, residential, and parole. They found that it was even effective with high-risk behaviour such as rape.


With the current focus on punishing criminals through longer prison terms and harsher fines, rehabilitation must not be neglected as the vast amount of research literature indicates that behaviour can be changed. The financial gains from turning a criminal into a law-abiding, productive citizen far outweigh the temporary savings from abolishing rehabilitation programs. Equally important is that we continue to provide more resources to rehabilitation programs in order to better understand, and change something that is constantly evolving – human behaviour.

Kelvin Mui


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