Re-offending

Social Work with Re-offenders from the Criminal Justice System


Literature review (offender characteristics, what works, social work role), young offenders, domestic violence re-offending, practice approach based on rehabilitation and skill-building


This page has three sections:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Information

Literature Review (Walsh, 2016)


Summary


A ‘typical’ offender does not exist.


Time spent in prison increases the rate of reoffending.


Current programs designed to reduce reoffending among those released from custody in NSW are ineffective: 48% of prisoners reoffend within two years of release. Literature suggests case management is a way of better coordinating support for offenders than current programs. Case management works with clients’ strengths and, by coordinating appropriate support, empowers offenders to successfully reintegrate into the community. To make a significant impact on reoffending, case management should commence on or prior to release from prison and remain in place for an extended period.





Offender characteristics:

  • Basic needs not met

  • Frequent drug misuse is 10 times more prevalent

  • Financial struggles—poverty

  • Unemployment

  • Poor literacy and numeracy skills

  • Lack of post-school vocational training

  • Physical and mental health problems—asthma, hepatitis, physical injuries, traumatic head injury, personality disorder, anxiety, depression and psychotic disorders

  • Distrust of institutions

  • Homelessness

  • Family criminality

  • Negative peer influences

  • Impulsive behaviour

What Works?


Punishment and deterrence programs do not work.


Rehabilitative and skill-building programs and supervision in community settings help. Rehabilitation programs need to have multiple components, focus on developing social and employment focused skills, ensure close, regular contact between the offender and any provider of training, and use behavioural approaches (with cognitive behavioural therapy specifically highlighted).


However, interventions that work in one context do not always work in another. Evaluation of the motivation level of offenders, their needs and their strengths, is important prior to deciding on interventions.


Developing and maintaining a respectful, flexible relationship between offender and supervisor, and maintaining the same supervisor throughout the program was important.


Stand-alone accommodation (rather than hostel accommodation) helps reduce reoffending.

Fostering self-determination and recognising and celebrating progress is important; develop social capital.


The United Kingdom Ministry of Justice review (2013) supported this multi-faceted approach. However, it went further by classifying potential interventions as “good” (supported by one or more high quality studies), “promising” (positive findings but quality of studies varies) or having “insufficient evidence”. Good interventions included addressing drug misuse, using intensive cognitive skills programs, reducing violence through psychosocial interventions (e.g., anger management, social problem solving), and, for young offenders, enhancing family relationships. Promising interventions included addressing employment needs (categorised as promising because success depends on addressing barriers to finding employment such as learning difficulties, mental illness and substance abuse), addressing mental health problems (not classed as good because of the complex nature and links to poverty, social environment and relationships), restorative justice conferencing and mentoring. Interventions that have insufficient evidence included addressing alcohol misuse, developing family relationships (for adult offenders), addressing negative peer relationships and addressing accommodation needs (because success in this area relies on other factors such as managing income and debt).


The Judy Lazarus Transition Centre (Corrections Victoria, 2007) has a good record in reducing reoffending. The program offered by the centre is based on intensive case management:

  • Assessment of risk and needs including one’s ability to respond to strengths-based strategies,

  • Implementation of individual programs, and

  • Exit planning aimed at successful community reintegration.

Prisoners are given responsibility to plan their week to best meet their needs with activities designed to focus on areas that have contributed to reoffending in the past. Their Transition Officer encourages and acknowledges success, counsels prisoners as appropriate and assists them to establish pro-social contacts and links beyond the Centre in preparation for re-entry.


Social Work Role


Social workers have the ability to address multiple challenges faced by offender on reintegration. However, it appears that the work with offenders needs commence early in an offender’s relationship with the Criminal Justice System, and be long-term, e.g. a three-year timeframe of contact.


The biopsychosocial assessment can lead to the development of an integrated model of support encompassing advocacy and practices to support mental health, substance misuse, job training, housing, childcare and physical health care.


Because of the multiple needs of most offenders, effective practices to address reoffending are increasingly based on a case management approach where the same case manager remains with the client for the duration of the program, and case management commences pre-release. Initial meetings with the client focus on developing rapport, essential to the success of a rehabilitation program. With rapport established, the results of a biopsychosocial (or similar) assessment are discussed and a reintegration plan developed. This plan, developed collaboratively and reviewed regularly, capitalises on client strengths while addressing needs. Case management relies on the social worker and client maintaining a respectful, open relationship and focuses on empowering clients to make informed decisions; client autonomy and self-determination are promoted. Case management is flexible. Strategies deemed to be necessary by client and worker can be included, e.g. social skill development with or without voluntary work, the use of CBT, involvement of family if appropriate, and restorative programs.


Young Offenders (Zuchowski et al., 2022)


A recent systematic literature review identified six themes that young people maintained were important when working with social services.


1. Supportive and Caring Relationships

Young people identified the need for supportive and caring relationships with peers, youth workers, family, and law enforcers to help foster positive change within their lives through feeling a sense of connection and belonging. In contrast, negative perceptions and encounters with the criminal justice system, police officers, and probation officers hindered a young person’s ability to change


2. Importance of Connecting with Peers

Peers were able to encourage young people to engage with services. They valued being able to maintain their peer group and make new friendships within services. Workers need to support peer relationships and utilise peers as co-mentors and co-motivators to encourage positive engagement within services.


3. Respectful Engagement

When service delivery reflected responsive, respectful, and empowering practices, better outcomes for young people were evident. Young people had difficulties engaging with services when there was no respect and no trust in the service relationship.

4. Dealing with Racism


Racism can have a deleterious impact on young people, including the way they perceive themselves and their relationships with others, and on their mental wellbeing. Assume racism may be shaping the experiences of young people, actively look for signs of it and then address it appropriately when it emerges. For young people, a consequence of everyday racism can be that they feel disconnected from the overall society, resulting in them being desensitised to racism, and seeing it as the norm. Young people might need help to identify racism and understand the impact in order to grow.


5. Information and Clarification

Young people identified the need for clearer, more accessible information about available services, formal procedures, charges, and programs they were involved in. Feelings of confusion were common regarding inadequate information being provided to young people. Young people often felt pressured into making decisions without careful consideration of the consequences of their decision. Young people needed questions asked during formal proceedings to be clarified, otherwise, they responded with “yeah” as their answer when they did not understand the question.


6. Valuing Young People’s Individuality: Agency and Empathy

“Agency” captures what many young people expressed as important to achieve positive outcomes. They wanted strength-based workers who saw the positives in them and challenged pessimism and hopelessness. They wanted to be involved in the service and found it difficult to engage when they felt powerless, unsupported and had no control made about decisions impacting on them. Essentially, only the young offender can affect change in his or her life. To help foster positive outcomes for young offenders, workers must build collaborative working relationships with them, ensure clarity in service provision, and tailor work to the individual, the offence and the community.

Young people’s comments highlighted the importance of empathy. Young people want to be listened to and encouraged to make decisions with practitioners, and to feel supported and connected. There is a need to understand people’s contexts. It is important that young people are approached in an empathetic manner, are given information and support and provided with opportunities to be heard and believed.


Involuntary clients (de Jong & Berg, 2001; Trotter, 2006)


Rapport building can be problematic with involuntary clients. However, strategies to overcome this resistance exist, all of which are consistent with social work practice:

  • Frequent, open and honest discussions about the worker’s role, especially around the assistance the worker can offer the client.

  • Exploring problems from the client’s perspective and seeking the client’s view on how to solve them.

  • Collaboratively setting achievable goals.

  • Reinforcing pro-social values and actions.

  • Being optimistic.

  • Listening empathically.

Domestic Violence Reoffending (Hulme, Morgan, & Boxall, 2019)


How prevalent is reoffending among domestic violence offenders?


The evidence clearly shows that a significant proportion of domestic violence offenders reoffended (e.g. one in two reoffending within four years (police data), and 23% reoffending in 6 months from another study). Domestic violence that resulted in conviction showed a lower level of reoffending, e.g. 20% in next 12 months, one-third in next three years.


Between 5 and 20% of AVO orders in NSW were breached, with breaches occurring in the victim’s home and/or when the offender was affected by alcohol.


Many domestic violence offenders were generalist offenders—i.e. domestic violence formed part of their overall offending behaviour.


There is growing recognition that domestic violence offending is concentrated among a relatively small group of offenders or couples, i.e. a small number of people are responsible for a significant amount of domestic violence incidents.


Individual-level risk factors associated with reoffending:


Gender Compared with women, men were at a greater risk of general reoffending, domestic violence reoffending, violent domestic violence reoffending, and protection order breaches.


Age The risk of reoffending decreased with age.


Indigenous status Most offenders who breached a protection order were non-Indigenous. However, orders against Indigenous offenders were breached more quickly and more frequently. Indigenous offenders had a higher likelihood of violent domestic violence reoffending than non-Indigenous offenders.


Socio-economic status and employment Two studies found that unemployed offenders were more likely to reoffend than those who were employed. Those in highly disadvantaged areas were also at a greater risk of violent domestic violence reoffending compared with those in the areas of least disadvantage.


Prior offending As has been consistently shown with reoffending more generally, the higher the number of prior offences, the greater the likelihood reoffending. Breaching a protection order is a strong predictor of repeat offending, as is having a violent offending history.


Common Themes:

The majority of offenders who came into contact with the justice system for domestic violence offending were men. The focus should remain on male offenders rather than female offenders.


Indigenous men were over-represented among domestic violence offenders who came to the attention of police. Recent research has highlighted the importance of innovative place-based models that are Indigenous-led and owned, and which are underpinned by a focus on social and emotional wellbeing.


Interventions should be targeted at areas with higher levels of disadvantage, particularly where there is a higher concentration of repeat offenders. The likelihood of domestic violence reoffending appears to be higher in more socio-economically disadvantaged communities.


Alcohol use by offenders featured prominently among domestic violence incidents. Effective interventions to reduce alcohol-related domestic violence, whether they focus on supply or demand, are a necessary and important feature of the response to domestic violence.


Practice Approach


Ideally work with reoffenders should commence prior to release from prison or, if not in prison, early in an offender’s relationship with the criminal justice system. It can be expected to continue for up to three years if it is to be effective in addressing recidivism. It needs to be a case management approach, where the social worker coordinates services for the person so that their basic needs are met and the problems that contributed to their time in prison are dealt with. It is also important to remember that a ‘typical’ offender does not exist and what works for one person will probably not work for the next.


The issues that may need to be addressed include:

  • frequent drug misuse (10 times more prevalent in reoffenders).

  • financial struggles—poverty; unemployment.

  • basic needs not met.

  • poor literacy and numeracy skills.

  • lack of post-school vocational training.

  • physical and mental health problems—asthma, hepatitis, physical injuries, traumatic head injury, personality disorder, anxiety, depression and psychotic disorders.

  • distrust of institutions.

  • homelessness.

  • family criminality.

  • negative peer influences.

  • impulsive behaviour.

The basic approach is to focus on rehabilitation and skill-building in a community setting with regular contact with the social worker / case manager. Rehabilitation programs need to have multiple components, focus on developing social and employment focused skills, ensure close, regular contact between the offender and any provider of training, and use behavioural approaches (with cognitive behavioural therapy specifically highlighted). Developing and maintaining a respectful, flexible relationship between offender and supervisor, and maintaining the same supervisor throughout the program is important. Stand-alone accommodation (rather than hostel accommodation) helps reduce reoffending. Fostering self-determination and recognising and celebrating progress is important, as is developing social capital.


The biopsychosocial assessment can lead to the development of an integrated model of support encompassing advocacy and practices to support mental health, substance misuse, job training, housing, childcare and physical health care.


There may be difficulty in building rapport, especially with involuntary service users. Strategies that can overcome this resistance include:

  • frequent, open and honest discussions about the worker’s role, especially around the assistance the worker can offer the client.

  • exploring problems from the client’s perspective and seeking the client’s view on how to solve them.

  • collaboratively setting achievable goals.

  • reinforcing pro-social values and actions.

  • being optimistic.

  • listening empathically.

Working with Young Offenders

Zuchowski et al., (2022) suggest more positive outcomes may be achieved if social workers respectfully support young people to extend their sense of agency and control over their circumstances. It seems essential that young people are provided with clear and accessible information. When confusion is perceived or expressed, workers need to provide information to create opportunities for young people’s decision-making, ultimately enhancing their service experience. Young people wanted their individual circumstances and contexts to be heard. Relationship-based practice seems crucial in working with young people who might be at risk of offending.


Implications for practice:

  • Provide early intervention, wraparound services, rehabilitation and therapeutic services.

  • Focus on young people’s strengths.

  • Acknowledge them as experts in their own lives—be non-judgemental.

  • Work actively to build positive relationships with young people

  • Actively consult

  • Show respect for their experiences and views

  • Collaborate

  • Promote self-determination.

  • Foster peer support. Create spaces that facilitate peer engagement, allowing peers to be used as co-mentors, co-motivators and co-facilitators in group work and team activities.

  • Share power with young people rather than applying it over them.

  • Clearly communicate rights and responsibilities.

  • Include young people as active participants in meetings that concern their lives, behaviours, and future expectations of them. To enable participation, ensure young people understand formal charges, content and format of processes.

  • Be aware that racism is common in the lives of young people and may shape their experience and response to events. Both services and individual workers need to decolonise assumptions, attitudes, behaviours and service delivery.

Supporting Material

(available on request)

Corrections Victoria. (2007). Judy Lazarus Transition Centre. Retrieved from https://assets.justice.vic.gov.au/corrections/resources/c85e3294-e12f-4cdc-a9f8-c87ef947c8b2/judylazarustransitioncentrebrochure.pdf


De Jong, P., & Berg, I. K. (2001). Co-constructing cooperation with mandated clients. Social Work, 46(4), 361-374.


Hulme, S., Morgan, A., & Boxall, H. (2019). Domestic violence offenders, prior offending and reoffending in Australia. Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice, 580. Australian Government: Australian Institute of Criminology.


Trotter, C. (2006). Working with Involuntary clients (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.


United Kingdom Ministry of Justice. (2013). Transforming rehabilitation: A summary of evidence on reducing reoffending. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/ system/uploads/attachment_data/file/243718/evidence-reduce-reoffending.pdf


Walsh, M. (2016). Social work approaches to reduce criminal reoffending: A literature review (unpublished work). Essay to fulfill the requirements of HSSW412: Emerging Issues in Social Work, University of New England, Armidale, Australia.


Zuchowski, I., Braidwood, L., d’Emden, C., Gair, S., Heyeres, M., Nicholls, L., Savuro, N., & O’Reilly, S. (2022). The voices of “at risk” young people about services they received: A systematic literature review. Australian Social Work, 75(1), 76-95. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2020.1776742