Youth Offending Programmes – what really does work

The Christchurch Press recently lead with a story about how the controversial ‘Boot Camp’ for New Zealand’s worst young offenders should be scrapped, after new figures showed a high reoffending rate. The camp is held at Te Puna Wai youth residence near Christchurch at a cost of $36,000 for each participant. Fifteen of the 17 people who attended the first two trial MACs have reoffended, and four of those are in prison. HMA staff have run the reducing reoffending aspect of the MAC three and four programmes. We therefore have a real interest in what constitutes success. While it is election year and politicians will argue back and forth, the key question is what should we expect in terms of real change?

Research suggests that most of the traditional interventions for antisocial adolescents have a relatively small effect on antisocial development. A number of meta-analyses of delinquency treatment programmes have found that the average effect of these programmes is to reduce offending by about 10%. This effect is so much smaller than the effect produced by interventions with younger antisocial children. Given the very large cost to society of offending (over the lifetime of the offender) however, interventions which produce a 10% reduction in offending may, nevertheless, still represent a worthwhile investment.The elements which are common to effective interventions are: (a) they are longer and more intensive than the interventions required for younger antisocial children; (b) they focus upon criminogenic needs (crime causing factors); (c) they are located in a multiple contexts – the home, the school, the peer group and even in recreational settings; (d) they are highly structured rather than experiential and unstructured; (e) they are being delivered by highly trained and experienced therapists; (f) they recognise that effective interventions for antisocial teenagers require the therapist to build a positive relationship with the antisocial teenager; and (g) they tend to be not a cheap option.

As can be gathered, a wrap-around intervention is what is required if we are to truly get runs on the board. In our recent book (McMaster, K.J. & Riley, D. [2011], Effective Interventions with Offenders; Lessons Learnt, Steele Roberts: Wellington) we indicated that the average costs of a high risk offender in the five years following being caught for a crime is in the vicinity of $550,000. In the offending game we think that a ten percent reduction in frequency and severity is well worth the investment upfront.

Programmes by themselves will never be the answer, and, like many things, maintaining change is the critical part of any intervention. If we can get young people through the first fifteen or so months without reoffending, then we have a real chance. We need to remember that offending is highly reinforcing behaviour. I have referred to adolescence as the testosterone filled years (alcohol, speed as in cars and fighting). We all know from our own adolescence that these are the risk years.

The keys to long terms change, in addition to those mentioned above, include increasing skill and capacity of existing staff to really engage with young people. Added to this, longer-term mentoring of young people with clear pro-social models who can show them a better way, may start to compete with the pressure from family and mates (we call these people Turn Around People). It takes real courage to walk away from trouble and young people need to learn that turning the other cheek is sometimes a better long term option. Easy to say at 53 years of age – much harder at 16!

Published on Sunday, September 11th, 2011, under Youth offending

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