What Works to Reduce Reoffending: A Summary of the Evidence

This is an updated version of the original review entitled ‘What Works to Reduce Reoffending: A Summary of the Evidence’, published in 2012.


Research aims and overview

This evidence review was undertaken to support strategic thinking regarding what works to reduce reoffending. The aim of the review was to examine the research into reducing reoffending, the process(es) by which individuals stop offending, and the impact of the criminal justice system in these processes. It does not consider strategies to reduce the risk of crime more generally, such as through early interventions, increasing the costs of offending or reducing opportunities to offend, as these areas are the focus of a separate Scottish Government published review of the literature on what works to reduce crime[1].

The review draws on published journal articles, books and reports from academics, government bodies and independent researchers. It is important to note that the review does not provide an all-inclusive overview of research into what works to reduce reoffending, but rather constitutes a collation of the material which could be identified and accessed within a relatively short space of time. This is the second version of the What Works to Reduce Reoffending review, and it is hoped that this paper will remain a work in progress that will be updated as additional evidence becomes available.

How do individuals desist from offending?

Individual and social factors

The evidence review begins with a summary of research into individual and social factors which can reduce reoffending that are outside the remit of the criminal justice system. The research suggests that age is an important factor in people giving up crime, with the majority of offenders having desisted[2] from crime by the time they reach their mid-twenties or early thirties[3]. Quality social ties formed through stable employment and marriage can also promote desistance[4]. Evidence also suggests that there can be differences in the process of desistance between men and women[5].

Imprisonment and community disposals

Overall, the evidence into the effectiveness of prison in reducing reoffending is mixed at best. Whilst prison can represent value for money in the short-term when it is used for high-risk serious and/or certain types of prolific offenders[6], a number of studies have found that community sentences are more effective in reducing reoffending than short-term prison sentences[7]. This may be due to increased opportunities for rehabilitation during community sentences and avoidance of the negative unintended consequences of imprisonment, such as losing employment or housing[8]. However, researchers suggest that the evidence comparing prison and community disposals is still developing, and so these conclusions should be treated as tentative[9]. No studies included in this review concluded that short prison sentences were associated with reduced reoffending when compared to community disposals.

At present the evidence is limited, but those serving suspended sentences may also have reduced reoffending when compared to those serving short-term prison sentences[10]. Similarly, imprisonment on remand can prevent some individuals from reoffending in the short-term through incapacitation; however remand can also be associated with negative effects that may hinder longer-term desistance[11]. Research into alternatives to remand, such as bail supervision, is still in its infancy.

Early release schemes

Evidence for the impact of early release schemes on reoffending is not yet conclusive. Some studies have shown that offenders released under electronic monitoring have not been found to be more likely to reoffend when released from prison than those who are not eligible for early release[12]. However, there is considerable variability in offenders' experiences of electronic monitoring[13]. Similarly, whilst the majority of offenders released on parole successfully complete their licence period[14], evidence on the impact of parole on reoffending is mixed.


Research has shown that diverting young people away from the criminal justice system can be effective in reducing their reoffending and can be associated with positive long-term impacts in people's lives such as reduced drug use in adulthood[15]. There is less evidence about the effectiveness of diversion in reducing reoffending among adults.


The dominant approach to offender rehabilitation is based on the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model of risk assessment[16]. This approach typically involves targeting the criminogenic needs of offenders and treatment which, for cognitive elements, often uses cognitive-behavioural therapy. This can lead to modest reductions in reoffending especially when interventions are rigorously implemented and combined with support in solving practical problems[17]. However in practice programmes often show less of an impact on reoffending than demonstration projects[18] and great care must be taken in applying a risk assessment approach to young people due to its potentially stigmatizing effects[19].

Given that offenders often face challenges in a number of areas, such as drug misuse or educational deficits, some researchers suggest that holistic interventions that address multiple criminogenic needs are more likely to be effective in reducing reoffending[20]. This is particularly the case for young people and women who offend[21].

The motivation of an offender to participate in rehabilitative programmes is key to their success, and interventions that are appropriately matched to the offenders' level of motivation are more likely to be effective in reducing reoffending[22]. The Good Lives Model, though in many respects consistent with elements of the RNR approach, incorporates a stronger focus on offenders' strengths and goals. It has been suggested that this can help increase the motivation of offenders to complete treatment but more research is required into its effects in practice[23].

Features of effective rehabilitative interventions

Interventions to help offenders develop prosocial social networks, and those that increase offenders' sense of agency, self-efficacy and good problem-solving skills may be effective in reducing reoffending[24]. For offenders with substance misuse problems, drug treatment programmes generally have a positive impact on reoffending and offer value for money[25].

The research is less clear on the impact on reducing reoffending of employment programmes[26], alcohol-brief interventions[27], mental health interventions[28] or holistic resettlement programmes[29] in reducing reoffending, and more research is required to investigate their effects. The research covered in the review suggests that while education programmes may contribute to the positive development of offenders, they are unlikely to reduce reoffending on their own[30].

Community supervision and through-care

Research has shown that a respectful, participatory and flexible relationship with a supervisor can trigger the motivation for an individual to change and thus help to promote desistance[31]. The evidence suggests that supervision should help offenders overcome practical obstacles to desistance such as unemployment and drug misuse, such as by supporting skill development or accessing drug treatment programmes[32]. A good relationship with the supervisor, who is perceived to understand the supervisee's needs, is important[33]. The character of supervision may impact desistance: intensive supervision programmes in the USA, which emphasise control over support, may not have been effective in reducing reoffending[34] [35], whilst supervision programmes which combine support with sanctions, such as the Integrated Offender Management schemes in the UK, have proved more successful[36]. As such more work is required into the most effective forms of supervision. There is also some promising evidence that mentoring[37] can have positive effects in reducing reoffending, employability and motivation to change, though more studies are needed to reach a reliable conclusion[38].

Through-care may contribute to reduced reoffending by providing practical support to offenders leaving prison. However, at present there is insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about the impact of through-care, including accommodation programmes, on reoffending[39]. Publicly recognizing that offenders have desisted from offending may help reduce the chances of future offending, but more empirical evidence is required to support this assertion[40].

Reparation and restoration

Restorative and reparative practices, such as unpaid work and restorative justice conferences, are theorized to help reduce offending by showing individuals the harmful consequences of offending and allowing them to make amends to victims of crime and communities. Little evidence for the effectiveness of unpaid work in reducing reoffending was uncovered in this review, but some qualitative evidence suggests that generative activities - that is, those that contribute to others' well-being[41] - involving contact with the beneficiaries are more likely to be effective than menial tasks[42]. Recent studies have shown a positive impact of restorative justice conferencing in reducing the frequency of reoffending for adult offenders[43] [44], but there are both positive and non-significant results with younger offenders[45]. There is no evidence that restorative justice is particularly effective with specific offender demographics, but the dynamics of the conference itself - particularly the quality of offender-victim interaction - seem key[46].


A number of studies have examined deterrence-based interventions in reducing reoffending. None of these studies found a positive impact in reducing reoffending, and a number suggested that these interventions led to increased offending[47].

Features of desisters from crime, and mapping the desistance journey from the user perspective

In helping to explore the process of desisting from crime, a growing body of qualitative research and some quantitative research exists which investigates the process of giving up crime from the perspectives of offenders and ex-offenders.

According to some studies, thinking styles are influential in determining whether offending continues or ceases[48]. There is evidence to suggest that desisters are more psychologically resilient, showing higher levels of self-efficacy and better coping skills than recidivists[49]. Making a decision to desist predicts subsequent desistance in persistent offenders.[50] The most commonly identified triggers for desistance included; the formation of strong social bonds, a developing awareness of the negative consequences of crime, and for some individuals the development of a good relationship with a supervisor and attendance at a rehabilitative programme[51]. Finding suitable employment and having improved emotional well-being can also be important for desistance[52]. Desistance attempts can fail when external circumstances, such as financial problems or a failed relationship, make offenders feel trapped in a criminal lifestyle[53].

Research has also explored users' perspectives on their contact with the criminal justice system. The findings of this research are mixed, with some of those interviewed suggesting that the justice system contact can induce positive changes, but others finding that contact with the justice system engendered reoffending[54]; however, these apparently contradictory findings may just be a consequence of different experiences of different sorts of justice system interventions For example, those serving short-term prison sentences can perceive these sentences as pointless, serving neither to rehabilitate nor punish offenders, and so not serving to address the causes of continued offending, such as drug addiction[55]. This illustrates the subjectivity of the desistance process.

Critical assessment of the 'What Works' literature, and future research

In many cases, due to limitations in research design, it is not possible to know whether the effect of reduced reoffending observed in a particular study was directly caused by the intervention being evaluated. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of interventions. It is also difficult to generalise results from "gold-standard evaluations" such as randomised controlled trials to everyday criminal justice settings, limiting the value of such studies in providing useful information to practitioners[56]. Authors have suggested that focusing on a single indicator of success (that is, reoffending) as an outcome may be inappropriate to measure the process of desisting from crime - or even the wider goals of the criminal justice system, including deterrence, retribution and reintegration[57]. Taking a wider conception of the process of desistance may allow us to better understand the impacts of interventions to reduce reoffending[58]. As a result of these limitations, researchers increasingly advise that evaluations focus not only on what works, but also on how, why, and to what ends an intervention is expected to work.

For future research it is proposed that: evaluations should incorporate more high quality user feedback on why an intervention worked or not, more studies investigating the process of desistance are needed in Scotland, further research is required into the effective implementation of interventions, and evaluations of the outcomes of strengths-based programmes should be undertaken.

Implications for policy and for working with offenders in Scotland

This chapter attempts to relate the evidence to the work of policy-makers and practitioners. It relates the findings of the evidence review to intermediate outcomes of offender interventions and non-criminogenic needs, summarises the implications of the evidence for the way we work with offenders, and outlines a recommended approach to evaluating projects in Scotland.


The review concludes that:

  • Desistance is a highly individualised process and one-size-fits-all interventions do not work.
  • The evidence is still developing, but a number of studies have found that those serving short prison sentences have higher rates of reoffending than those serving community sentences.
  • More generally, the way in which individuals are processed by the criminal justice system and partner agencies may alter their likelihood of reoffending.
  • There are a number of individual factors which are associated with reduced reoffending.
  • A number of scholars have argued that desistance from crime is different for women than it is for men, and that women require different interventions to help assist this process.
  • Rehabilitative interventions with the strongest evidence base for reducing reconviction rates are cognitive-behavioural programmes which address criminogenic needs.
  • More research is required to understand the effectiveness of strengths-based intervention programmes and their implications for practice.
  • Supervision can be an important factor in helping offenders desist from crime.
  • Offenders' relationships with supervisors, family and friends are considered to be important to the process of desistance.
  • There is some promising but mixed evidence for the effectiveness of reparative and restorative programmes in reducing reoffending.
  • Factors outside of the control of the criminal justice system affect reoffending.


Email: Justice Analytical Unit

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