Designing and Evaluating Interventions to Reduce Crime and Reoffending Summary

A summary version of guidance on how to use the 5 Step Approach to designing and evaluating criminal justice interventions.


Authored by Catherine Bisset

Step 2: Review the evidence

For best results use a range of evidence

To draw the most robust conclusions about ‘what works’ and why, you should take account of evidence produced through a range of methods.

  • Quantitative studies (including the results of RCTs and impact evaluations) might help you to establish what usually works and for whom.
  • Qualitative work (e.g. interviews with users who 'succeed’ and ‘fail’ and/or with practitioners) might help you to understand the processes through which interventions work or don’t work and consider why barriers may exist to achieving your aims.

TIP If you are short on time and resources, systematic and/or literature reviews are an excellent source of evidence. They often analyse both quantitative and qualitative studies on a particular topic and should do the work of summarising all this evidence for you.

Finding evidence

When time and resources are limited, evidence reviews (also called systematic reviews or literature reviews) are a realistic solution – enabling an overview of the evidence in a relatively short time.

Online databases and archives are the most convenient means through which to locate evidence reviews. The following slides provide a summary of the evidence on reducing crime and reoffending and links to full reviews. However, the following databases can be of general help in locating relevant evidence:

Search academic databases: Search government archives:

TIP Try searching for 'evidence/literature/systematic review' + your behaviour change aim (i.e. 'reoffending', 'impulse control', 'collective efficacy', 'parenting' or 'motivation').

Reducing crime

The full evidence review  ‘What Works to Reduce Crime’ can be found here

Evidence: Reducing Crime

Tackle the root causes of crime

  • Low self control in children is linked to offending
  • Parenting programmes are effective in improving self-control
  • Social skills training designed to improve emotional intelligence, may help reduce delinquent behaviour
  • Offending is linked to abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence and parental substance misuse
  • Quality of care of children and young people and protection from abuse and neglect are key
  • Identification of abuse and neglect at the earliest stage

Address key social factors

  • Retain an attachment to school
    • Staying at school is a protective factor
    • Exclusion could be a significant risk factor
    • Behavioural boundary setting is key
    • Diversion activities e.g. sport play an important role
    • Enable children to realise their potential
  • Holistic employment programmes that also provide social and educational support can be effective
  • Minimise the impact of criminal justice sanctions on family bonds
  • Restrict access to alcohol
  • Tackle drug and alcohol abuse (improving social control through effective parenting may play a part)

Deterrence and Changing the Situation

  • Detection and punishment used alone are ineffective
  • People are more likely to comply with rules if they are perceived to be fair and legitimate, not because they fear punishment
  • Tackling areas of ‘concentrated disadvantage’ is the most important step to take to reduce crime
  • People offend less when communities look after their areas – ‘collective efficacy’ has been found to be an important factor in reducing crime
  • The certainty of punishment (increasing the likelihood of detection)  is more effective as a deterrent than the severity of punishment
  • Increasing ‘security by design’ reduces crime (deadlocks, alarms etc)

What works evidence matrix

The following table describes the findings from the international ‘what works’ evidence on reducing reoffending.

The results are generated by quantitative randomised controlled trials of programmes and interventions.

Links to full evidence reviews can be found in the chapter on Helpful Resources.

There are more evidence summaries in the FULL version of this pack.

Risks to reoffending (evidence-based)

Indicator that the risk is present in an individual

Desired Intermediate outcomes

Approaches that work to address the risk

Promising approaches but more evidence needed

Limited social skills, problem-solving skills and poor emotion management

Impulsive, pleasure-seeking, irritable, poor recognition of problems, poor problem-solving skills, poor social skills, lack of awareness of consequences of actions

Skills in problem-solving and perspective taking

Emotion management skills

Structured CBT programmes such as cognitive skills training

Restorative Justice Conferencing

No evidence identified but trained supervisors/mentors could help offenders engage in CBT programmes

Criminal attitudes

Rationalisations for crime, negative attitudes towards the law, negative attitudes to supervision and to society as a whole

Development of prosocial attitudes and a non‑criminal identity

Structured CBT programmes such as cognitive skills training and cognitive restructuring techniques

Pro-social modelling, positive supervisor/mentor and staff interactions

Supervisors/mentors challenge anti-social attitudes

Criminal friends

Criminal friends; isolation from pro-social others; easily influenced by criminal associates

Criminal friends replaced by prosocial friends and associates

More evidence needed

Mentoring, circles of support and accountability (for sex offenders)

Lack of positive recreation or leisure activities / anti-social lifestyle

Lack of involvement and satisfaction in pro‑social recreational activities. Regular activities encourage offending, recklessness and risk taking behaviours

Participation in pro‑social recreational activities, sense of reward form pro‑social recreation and sustained involvement in pro-social lifestyle

More evidence needed

No evidence identified but supervisors/mentors could aim to engage offenders in pro‑social activities

Drug misuse

Uses drugs, injects drugs, unmotivated to tackle drug misuse, drug use and obtaining drugs a major occupation.

Substance use reduced or stopped

CBT programmes. Detox, opiate substitution therapy (for acquisitive opiate‑addicted offenders) psycho‑social support to maintain abstinence,12 step programmes, structured, therapeutic communities for drug misuse.

No evidence identified but supervisors/mentors could help offenders engage with drug programmes

Alcohol misuse

Binge drinking, long term alcohol misuse, violent when intoxicated

Reduced alcohol use or stopped drinking, reduced through disturbances promoted by drinking

More evidence needed

Supervisors/Mentors could help offenders engage with 'promising' programmes which address the interaction between alcohol and violence

Dysfunctional family relationships

Poor family relationships; no current relationship, no previous experience of close relationships, manipulative lifestyle

Conflict reduced, positive relationships, enhanced warmth and caring; reintegration into (non criminal) social and family groups

Strengthened family ties improving family and intimate relationships, improving parenting behaviours and increasing acceptance into communities and social networks

Therapeutic approaches for young adult offenders that involve the family

No evidence identified but supervisors/mentors could help young offenders engage with therapeutic approaches

Supervisors/mentors could also help offenders engage in 'promising' approaches, namely relationship coaching interventions and they could also facilitate family visits to prison


Poor performance, low satisfaction in work, lack of work‑related skills, poor attitude to employment, lack of qualifications

Work skills, good interpersonal relationships at work, reward and satisfaction at work

Longterm employment and increased employment skills

Employment-focused programmes in which offenders can secure real jobs they enjoy

Gaining work related qualifications, gaining employability skills

Work related support/mentoring


No fixed abode or transient

Finding and keeping suitable housing

More evidence needed

No evidence identified but supervisors/mentors could assist homeless offenders find homes and retain them

Low motivation and/or self‑efficacy

Unmotivated to desist and/or the belief that they do not possess the skills to desist from crime

Offenders are highly motivated to engage with supervisors and interventions and offenders are confident they have the skills to desist from crime

Offenders build positive trusting relationships with skilled, empathetic and flexible mentors; Collaborative goal-setting

No evidence identified

Effective practice - Women offenders

  • Relationships with others have a stronger influence on women’s offending then on men so they are key to desistance: women desisters say they have strong social support from others and employ strategies for avoiding situations which could lead them back into offending.
  • Interventions should be delivered by interpersonally skilled staff who build a consistent and trusting relationship with offenders.
  • Interventions are most effective if they start in prison and continue when women are released, address criminogenic and non-criminogenic needs simultaneously and are well targeted and sequenced.
  • To reduce reoffending, interventions should help women improve their financial situation, secure suitable and safe housing, establish loving bonds with children, tackle drug abuse in a residential setting and help women form positive relationships.
  • Women offenders value help to solve practical problems such as accommodation, childcare and welfare benefits. These short-term needs may have to be addressed before women are ready to engage with interventions or address longer term needs such as education or employment.
  • Substance misuse has a stronger relationship with reoffending in women, and women are more likely offend to support others’ drug misuse as well as their own. However, some research has shown that recreational and occasional drug use are not strong predictors of reoffending in women, which suggests that intensive interventions should be targeted at drug use that is criminogenic
  • Some social conditions that promote desistance in women are outside the control of some formal interventions – maturation, support from family and friends and establishing healthy personal relationships

Effective practice - Desistance theory

Some research is beginning to shed light on the process of desistance from crime, and (to a lesser extent) on the potential role of criminal justice social work supervision in facilitating that process. Although there has been relatively little empirical research on the latter subject, a body of theorising has emerged which, follows the idea that probation practice should become ‘desistance-focused’ seeks to interpret desistance research for practice. Reviewing the available research, these efforts to interpret desistance research for practice tend to stress (albeit to varying degrees) eight central themes:

  • Desistance is likely to  involve lapses and relapses. There is value, therefore, in criminal justice supervision being realistic about these difficulties and to find ways to manage setbacks and difficulties constructively. It may take considerable time for supervision and support to exercise a positive effect.
  • Since desistance is an inherently individualised and subjective process, approaches to criminal justice social work supervision must accommodate and exploit issues of identity and diversity. One-size-fits-all interventions will not work.
  • The development and maintenance not just of motivation but also of hope become key tasks for criminal justice social workers .
  • Desistance can only be understood within the context of human relationships; not just relationships between workers and offenders (though these matter a great deal) but also between offenders and those who matter to them.
  • Although the focus is often on offenders’ risks and needs, they also have strengths and resources that they can use to overcome obstacles to desistance – both personal strengths and resources, and strengths and resources in their social networks. Supporting and developing these capacities can be a useful dimension of criminal justice social work.
  • Since desistance is in part about discovering self-efficacy or agency, interventions are most likely to be effective where they encourage and respect self-determination; this means working with offenders, not on them.
  • Interventions based only on developing the capacities and skills of people who have offended (human capital) will not be enough. Probation also needs to work on developing social capital, opportunities to apply these skills, or to practice newly forming identities (such as ‘worker’ or ‘father’).

A fictitious example of an evidence-based proposal

How the evidence base supports an intervention to design a throughcare intervention for short-term prisoners

Intervention (what are we doing?)

  • This project aims to increase support and interventions for short term prisoners released from prison
  • The project is targeted at male short term prisoners
  • Contact by a fully trained throughcare officer will be made 1 month after sentencing. They will spend the first month building a relationship with prisoners before the first of 3 needs assessments are conducted and ‘whole person’ pre-release plan is developed
  • Practitioners will accompany prisoners through the gate to link them with services and for 3 months after release

Evidence (why are we doing this?)

  • Several international reviews, drawing on randomised controlled trials and qualitative research have demonstrated the positive impact of one-to-support from highly skilled practitoners and needs-led interventions on desistance from crime (see Scottish Government Literature Review, 2011 and 2015). There is also some evidence from impact evaluations that a lack of pre-release planning and poor access to employment, support and accommodation after leaving prison leads to reoffending (Scottish Govt review 2015)
  • Although male prisoners are at a higher risk of being reconvicted than women, they are less likely to take up voluntary throughcare (see Throughcare review 2012)
  • A systematic review of the international literature on throughcare and resettlement highlighted that needs assessments are higher quality if practitioners give prisoners  time to settle into prison, build a trusting relationship and if the needs assessment considers the whole person including family and influences. Research with offenders also shows that trained practioners who use a flexible approach and strong interpersonal skills are able to keep offenders motivated and engaged
  • A Canadian review and the international review mentioned above highlighted the need for practitioners to connect prisoners with services once they return to the community. The highest risk of reoffending is 3 months after release from custody (Howard, MoJ 20011)


Email: Catherine Bisset

Back to top