Part 3: An offender-centric approach to managing offenders

Department of Corrections: Managing offenders to reduce reoffending.

In this Part, we discuss:

  • how the Department assesses offenders to identify their rehabilitation risks and needs;
  • the types of rehabilitation programmes that the Department uses to treat offenders; and
  • issues and challenges with scheduling offenders into programmes.

Summary of our findings

The Department assesses offenders to work out the likelihood that they will reoffend and identify the criminal characteristics that contribute to offending. This determines the management offenders need. Under the new strategy, all offenders have a numeracy and literacy assessment and are screened for alcohol and drug problems. Also, all male offenders over the age of 18 years receive a mental health assessment. The assessments are used to prepare an offender plan that includes appropriate programmes and activities to address the offender's needs.

The Department provides a range of rehabilitation programmes in prisons and the community that focus on treating offenders' criminal behaviours. The programmes are based on the RNR model (see paragraph 2.29).

Several of the Department's rehabilitation programmes are run in therapeutic communities, which are a proven group-based approach to treatment. Therapeutic communities are based on a culture of respect, collaboration, openness, responsibility, and support.

The Department has increased the range of alcohol and drug treatments and is expanding other proven rehabilitation programmes in prisons and in the community.

Scheduling offenders into rehabilitation programmes is reactive, and the Department does not forecast demand for those programmes. The Department's information technology system does not meet its needs. We are concerned that the increase in the number of rehabilitation programmes will make scheduling problems worse.

Assessments for offender plans

The Department uses an offender-centric approach to manage offenders. This means that the Department assesses offenders to work out the likelihood that they will reoffend and the criminal characteristics that contribute to offending. The Department uses these assessments to decide what it will do to address offenders' criminal behaviours.

The Department uses a risk assessment tool to predict an offender's risk of conviction and risk of imprisonment (the RoC*RoI) based on a number of factors. The risk factors include age, gender, and criminal history (for example, age of first offence, seriousness of previous offences, and length of time between offences).

The RoC*RoI scores on a scale from 0.01 to 1. An offender's score predicts the likelihood of future offending and determines their rehabilitation needs. Offenders with a RoC*RoI score over 0.7 are classified as very high risk. A score of 0.8, for example, means the offender has an 80% likelihood of reoffending within five years.

About 40% of offenders are assessed as high risk or have complex rehabilitation or reintegration needs. These offenders are assigned to enhanced case management. This means that they receive more contact with their case manager, more focused attention on their progress, and regular reviews. The remaining 60% of offenders are assigned to standard case management. They receive a standard case management assessment and plan, and regular reviews.

Another tool, called the Automated Sexual Recidivism Scale, is a static risk measure specifically used to predict sexual offending. This tool classifies sex offenders into low, medium-low, medium-high, or high risk groups.

Preparing plans for offenders

Every sentenced offender entering a prison is assigned a case manager. The case manager interviews the offender to assess their needs and prepares an offender plan that covers:

  • the needs or characteristics that are directly related to offending;
  • behaviour, attitudes, and compliance;
  • education and work;
  • health, well-being, and lifestyle support; and
  • housing, finance, and victim-related issues.

As part of the new strategy, each offender receives a numeracy and literacy assessment. All offenders entering youth units complete an initial education and training assessment with a dedicated youth tutor. Adult offenders are assessed using the Tertiary Education Commission's Literacy and Numeracy Tool for Adults. In August 2013, 10 prisons were using the Tertiary Education Commission's assessment, and 1070 offenders had been assessed. The Department anticipates that the assessment process will be rolled out to all prisons by 31 December 2013.

All male offenders over the age of 18 years receive a mental health assessment. Research has shown that mental health disorders and illnesses are up to five times more prevalent among offenders in prison than in the general population. Offenders with serious mental health needs receive ongoing forensic mental health care.

All offenders entering prison are screened for alcohol and drug problems. Those identified with an alcohol or drug problem receive further screening to rate the seriousness of their dependency and determine the treatment required.

Every offender on a community-based sentence or order must have an offender plan, except for offenders sentenced to community work or community detention. The plans stipulate what the offenders will do during their sentence and any needs they have, such as job-skills training. Probation officers also prepare safety plans with offenders. These identify what the offender's risks are – that is, what could cause them to reoffend – and what the offender can do to mitigate these risks.

The Department has indicators to measure the quality and timeliness of preparing offender plans. Prisoners with time to serve between 28 days and 26 weeks should have an offender plan prepared within 28 days of their sentence beginning. A prisoner with time to serve of more than 26 weeks should have an offender plan prepared within 60 days of their sentence beginning.

Offenders on a community-based sentence should have an offender plan prepared within the first 20 days of sentencing.

At 30 June 2013, 98% of prisoners received a plan, and 85% of these were prepared on time. This shows that there is an opportunity to improve the timeliness of preparing plans in prisons. However, we note that there has been an improvement of 14% on the previous year's results of 71% of offender plans completed on time.

Completion rates for preparing offender plans are part of the mandatory standards that probation officers must meet. Results for meeting mandatory standards are published every two months. In August 2013, 94% of offenders on community-based sentences received offender plans within the time frame.

Programmes for offenders

When the offender plan for a prisoner is ready, the case manager sends the information to a scheduler, who puts the offender on a waiting list for the appropriate programme(s). When a programme becomes available, the scheduler checks each prisoner against the eligibility criteria. Reasons for ineligibility could be that the prisoner's security classification is too high, they are an identified drug user, their age, they might not be able to associate with other prisoners on the same programme, or they have to improve their literacy first through a foundations programme. Eligible prisoners are accepted into the programme.

Broadly, there are five types of programmes:

  • motivation to change (discussed in this Part);
  • rehabilitation (discussed in this Part);
  • education and training (discussed in Part 4);
  • employment (discussed in Part 4); and
  • reintegration into the community (discussed in Part 5).

Motivational programmes

The Department assesses the motivation of offenders to attend rehabilitation programmes. Offenders who are not interested in changing their behaviour and attitude are encouraged to attend short motivational programmes. These programmes are designed to encourage offenders to be aware of, and accept responsibility for, the effect of their offending on others and to motivate offenders to enter proven rehabilitation programmes or interventions.

Rehabilitation programmes

The Department provides a range of rehabilitation programmes in prisons and in the community that focus on treating offenders' criminal behaviours. The programmes are based on the RNR model (see paragraph 2.29), which involves assessing motivation and responsivity (Is the offender ready and is the programme the right one for the offender?).

We saw consistency in how the programmes are designed and delivered. The programmes are designed and delivered using principles of cognitive behaviour and relapse-prevention therapy. In general, this meant that programmes are delivered in three phases:

  • The first phase focuses on raising self-awareness and insight into the effect of the offending.
  • The second phase deals with criminal behaviours, such as anger management or substance abuse.
  • The third phase plans for the future by developing a relapse prevention and/or reintegration plan. This includes a safety plan to provide ways to manage any risks of reoffending. For offenders about to leave prison, it might also include looking at what support they need to reintegrate into the community or return to family.

Therapeutic communities

Several of the Department's rehabilitation programmes are run in therapeutic communities. A therapeutic community is a group-based approach to treatment that has gained a reputation for success. This approach is used in other correctional facilities around the world and is also used in other disciplines, such as treating mental health and drug addiction. Often, the offenders live together in a unit. A good example of the Department's therapeutic communities is the special treatment units that run rehabilitation programmes to treat high-risk offenders who have committed violent and sexual crimes. Other examples include the drug treatment units and the Māori focus units.

The Māori focus units work within a tikanga Māori environment and are designed to motivate offenders to address their behaviour using Māori philosophy, values, knowledge, and practices. Offenders learn their whakapapa (where they come from) and concepts such as the role of marae and whānau in personal growth. The units run the Mauri Tu Pae (formerly known as the Māori Therapeutic Programme) for Māori offenders.

The therapeutic communities are based on a culture of respect, collaboration, openness, responsibility, and support. One way the Department seeks to encourage this culture is through the way that each new group is set up. For example, in setting up a new rehabilitation programme in a special treatment unit, a psychologist picks three or four men who they have identified would be a good starter group. The psychologist then adds others to the starter group until there are 10 men. We were told that it is hard to form a group with 10 men from the start, which is why others are gradually added. The group sets the rules, culture, and norms for the group.

Participants attend weekly "community of change" meetings with custodial and therapeutic staff. This offers a forum for offenders to give each other feedback on progress and to discuss any issues or positive events. Constructive use of peer group influence encourages offenders to take responsibility for their behaviour. The offenders run the meetings. This involves setting the agenda, taking minutes and apologies, and providing an update on the group's progress.

We visited some therapeutic communities and saw examples of the special treatment units, Māori focus units, and drug treatment units. There are different units for different needs. For example, a high-risk offender with a RoC*RoI score over 0.7 who is motivated and has a security classification of low medium is eligible for a special treatment unit. Māori offenders can participate in Māori focus units. Likewise, offenders with alcohol and drug addictions can participate in drug treatment units.

Alcohol and drug treatment

Until recently, alcohol and drug treatment in prisons was only available through dedicated drug treatment units. The Department recognised that this meant that many other offenders were not having their alcohol or drug problems met. It has now increased the range of interventions available. Offenders identified with an alcohol or drug problem are offered, in the first instance, a brief intervention run by prison health or case management staff. Other alcohol and drug treatments include:

  • brief motivational programmes for offenders who are ambivalent about changing their patterns of alcohol and drug use – this programme has been specifically designed for prisoners on remand or short sentences;
  • intermediate support programmes that are particularly suitable for offenders who have moderate alcohol and drug problems or are not in prison long enough to complete a longer programme;
  • intensive treatment programmes for those with serious addictions; and
  • drug treatment units that teach offenders about addiction, change, relapse, and the effects of their actions on others.

External facilitators run the programmes in the drug treatment units. One facilitator explained that:

The programme targeted addiction, not just drugs. The unit becomes a self-regulating community. It's about empowering people to make choices. Getting them to understand they can have control over their lives and take total responsibility for themselves. The idea of choice is a liberating notion for many of them. It seems to work well. The dynamic and ethic here is different from mainstream… They don't mix with any other units so they can't be contaminated by others, for example, bringing in contraband. No gang regalia is allowed. In this unit, gang members coexist. The programme also includes classes on anger management and classes that encourage literacy and behaviours.

Expanding proven rehabilitation programmes

We heard criticism about the numbers of offenders taking part in rehabilitation and other programmes. As discussed in paragraph 3.28, the number of people in a programme affects the group dynamics and the success of the programme. Too small a group, and ideas and support are not forthcoming. Too big a group, and people can hide or the group can become unmanageable.

The Department is increasing the number of programmes it will deliver so that more offenders can participate in them. For example, an increase in alcohol and drug treatment will see the number of offenders receiving treatment in prison and in the community increase from about 8500 in 2012/13 to 33,000 in 2016/17.

Similarly, the Department is expanding rehabilitation programmes in prisons that are proven to reduce reoffending. For example, the Department has increased the number of offenders participating in the rehabilitation programme in the Matapuna special treatment unit at Christchurch Men's Prison. At first, 40 offenders would go through the programme each year. Now the unit is running an additional rehabilitation programme, meaning 50 offenders will participate in the programme each year. In total, 120 additional offenders a year will be treated in special treatment units.

The Department is offering more programmes for offenders on community-based sentences. About 50,000 offenders complete community-based sentences each year. The programmes include:

  • brief alcohol and drug treatment;
  • relapse prevention;
  • work and living skills; and
  • support, education, and job-skills training.

Community work holds offenders to account for their offending by making them carry out a set number of hours of unpaid work on activities that will benefit the community. The Department wants to use this time to provide work and living skills that might increase offenders' likelihood of leading a constructive life and reduce their likelihood of reoffending. Courses include parenting, budgeting, cooking, and literacy and numeracy skills. Offenders can use 20% of their community-based sentence to attend courses to develop these skills.

Trade-offs between rehabilitation programmes and other activities

Rehabilitation takes priority over all other activities. Some offenders we spoke to in prisons and in the community told us that this presents a problem for them. For offenders in the community, it could interfere with work opportunities. For offenders in prison, it might mean having to leave trade training, which offenders often thought was more beneficial because it prepared them for work. For many offenders, going on rehabilitation was a "tick-the-box" exercise to satisfy the Parole Board or conditions of their sentence. However, some offenders seemed to go through a change of heart, and we received many positive comments about the programmes.

Some offenders told us that the hardest thing about being on a rehabilitation programme was all the down time. For example, offenders in one high-intensive rehabilitation programme in a special treatment unit spend nine hours a week in classroom-based therapy sessions. They explained that there was nothing else for them to do when they were not taking part in the programme and that this was when people got into trouble. The lead psychologist attached to the unit told us that offenders desperately need to be able to work or have some other activity that they can do, even if it is just working in the tree nursery.

The issue was that, to avoid "contamination", the Department did not want offenders in rehabilitation programmes mixing with other offenders who had not completed any rehabilitation. This seemed symptomatic of a wider scheduling issue.

Challenges with scheduling offenders on programmes

The Department's scheduling system is reactive. It does not plan for or forecast future anticipated demand for programmes. Also, the Department's information technology system does not meet its needs. Instead, schedulers rely on spreadsheets to keep track of the programmes and to manage waiting lists. They find this inefficient because spreadsheets require a lot of manual data input, which can lead to mistakes.

Because scheduling is reactive, it does not seem to take into account what other activities offenders could take part in at the same time or what happens when they complete rehabilitation.

Ideally, offenders finishing intensive rehabilitation will either leave prison shortly after or be transferred to a unit, such as release to work, an internal or external self-care unit, or a pre-release unit. This means that they are released into an environment where they can practise the skills and behaviours they have learned.

However, this is not always possible because some offenders will not be eligible to be released or have a security classification that is too high for a low-security unit. Even if an offender has a low security classification, there is no guarantee that space will be available in a low-security unit. Some offenders end up being sent back to mainstream units. For example, when we visited a drug treatment unit, out of 12 offenders who had started the programme, two went to the pre-release unit, two went to release to work, three went back to mainstream units, and five dropped out of the programme. Psychologists, facilitators, and offenders described how sending offenders back to mainstream units can undermine their rehabilitation. Not knowing which unit they were going to after completing rehabilitation made some offenders anxious.

The number of programmes is expected to increase from 19,279 in 2012/13 to 103,415 in 2016/17. In our view, this increase will make the scheduling problems worse.

The Department has a project under way to improve scheduling. The Department told us that the project depends on it upgrading its information technology system. The aim of the project is to allow the Department to:

  • schedule offenders to attend multiple programmes; and
  • forecast future need for programmes to help plan efficient use of resources and identify gaps in supply.

The Department described the information technology requirements as similar to a university timetabling system that allows a student to attend multiple courses. The timetabling system allows the university to plan its resources for the year, such as how many courses, rooms, lecturers, and tutors are required.

The Department is planning a scheduling system that maps an offender's rehabilitation journey. At the moment, it seems to us that the journey stops once an offender starts a programme. In our view, scheduling needs to take into account not just where and when offenders start programmes but also, importantly, where they go after they have completed a programme.

Our concern is that, by increasing the number of offenders going on rehabilitation programmes without improving its scheduling system, the Department will become less effective and efficient. Although more offenders will complete programmes, it is likely that a higher proportion will be sent back to mainstream units, which are not as effective at supporting rehabilitation. The Department is likely to be less efficient because it will invest in more resources for a lower return. In our view, this is a significant risk, and the Department needs to continue to work on improving its scheduling system.

In the short term, the scheduler can make sure that, when they book an offender into a rehabilitation programme, they also book the offender into a low-security unit when the programme finishes. Figure 2 shows this approach.

Figure 2
Scheduling offenders in and out of programmes

Figure 2.

This will require taking stock of available space that could support rehabilitation compared to the number of offenders likely to complete programmes. We do not consider that this is about increasing the number of facilities. Rather, it is a matter of using the current facilities to keep the focus on rehabilitation. A good example is the pre-release unit at Auckland Men's Prison. This unit has been set up in a high-security area but is run as a therapeutic community, with a focus on reintegrating into the community.

Recommendation 1
We recommend that the Department of Corrections continue to investigate ways to improve its scheduling system so it can support rehabilitation and reintegration after an offender has completed a rehabilitation programme.
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