Dealing with offending behaviour - Forensic psychology

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Dealing with offending behaviour
Forensic psychology


Custodial sentencing involves convicted offenders being sent to prison, which serves four functions; deterrence (to stop people reoffending), retribution (punishment for the offending behaviour), confinement (to prevent further offences) and rehabilitation (the teaching of skills to prevent reoffending). There are psychological effects of custodial sentencing, such as institutionalisation, where inmates become unable to live independently outside of prison, and negative effects on mental health, like increased levels of depression. Recidivism involves individuals who reoffend after serving a custodial sentence for earlier criminal actions. About 26 per cent of sentenced offenders reoffend within 1 year of release from prison, which may occur due to institutionalisation, poor levels of mental health and addiction problems. To reduce reoffending levels, behaviour modification programmes are used where reinforcements, in the form of ’tokens’, are given for demonstrating desired behaviour. These can then be exchanged for desirable goods and luxuries. Anger management is a cognitive intervention, which trains individuals to recognise what makes them angry, teaches skills to reduce anger and offers opportunities to practice such skills. Restorative justice programmes attempt to get offenders to realise the impact of their criminality by getting them to meet the victims of their offending behaviour in a controlled environment.


Fig 16.4 Custodial sentencing serves several functions

Focal study

Ireland (2000) assessed the effectiveness of anger management programmes in reducing anger levels in offenders. In the research, 50 prisoners were assessed on two measures of anger both before and after completion of an anger management programme, which involved 12 hours’ worth of intervention spread out into one hour intervals over a period of three days. The measures were a self-report questionnaire and a checklist of 29 problematic behaviours. There was also a control group of 37 prisoners (matched for offending behaviour profile) who did not receive any anger management and completed the same measures as those that did. The results from the two groups were compared and it was found that there was a 92 per cent reduction in anger levels for the intervention group on at least one of the two measures. This suggests that anger management programmes are effective in reducing anger levels in offenders.


• Hollin (1992) found evidence to suggest that prison became ’home’ to some prisoners. The fact that they received three meals a day, together with a bed and companionship, was preferable to them than what they had to deal with outside of prison, illustrating the effect of institutionalisation upon recidivism levels.

• Cartier et al. (2006) found a strong relationship between substance abuse and reoffending rates, although interestingly this was not linked to violent offences. This suggests addiction, if not treated within the prison system, can lead to prisoners reoffending upon release.

• Hobbs & Tyllon (1976) found that introduction of a behaviour modification programme in three young offenders’ institutions reduced the amount of undesirable behaviour within the institution when compared with an institution with no such programme. This demonstrates the short-term benefits of behaviour modification, though there is no guarantee the modified behaviour will continue outside of prison.

Positive evaluation

Image Restorative justice is considerably cheaper than custodial sentencing, so is a popular sentencing option. It also has the advantage of being psychologically helpful to individuals who have been the victims of crime.

Image Behaviour modification takes little training or expense. This makes it a cost-effective technique, which is easy to introduce, as there are few problems with staff being skilled enough to administer it, unlike other interventions such as anger management.

Image Anger management gives offenders insight into how they think and can help them gain an understanding of problems in their thinking, which have led them to offend in the past.

Negative evaluation

Image It appears, from recidivism rates, that the aims of deterrence and rehabilitation are not fulfilled by custodial sentencing, as reoffending rates are high The idea that rehabilitation is effective is also questionable, as it may actually serve to teach criminals how to offend more skilfully.

Image It is difficult to assess whether prisoners’ mental health issues are due to being incarcerated in prison or were imported into prison by offenders.

Image Although behaviour modification programmes work well in the short term, there is little evidence to suggest they work once the offender has left the institution. This means they have limited rehabilitative effect.

Practical application

The main practical application of research into dealing with offending behaviour is the establishment of practices and techniques to reduce high levels of recidivism, such as anger management programmes, behaviour modification and restorative justice programmes.