inside prison

The Evidence on Violent Offenders


Although only a minority of crimes are violent (the majority are administrative, property, and driving-related), US data published in 1994 show 93% of state inmates and 61% of federal inmates being incarcerated for a violent offence (Wolf 1994). Similar results exist in Canada, where 80% of federal inmates in Canadian institutions with a violent criminal record. Because of the sheer volume of violent offenders in prison, the assumption that there is a single, prototypical “violent offender” personality is misguided; in reality, a complex combination of different personal features tends to lead to different kinds of violent dispositions. Each individual has different degrees and intensities of violent personality factors, leading to different respective levels of risk and treatment need. It is quite possible that the misconception that violent offenders are uniquely "one-of-a-kind" results from clustering offenders into unique diagnostic categories. After all, most violent offenders suffer from some form of antisocial personality disorder, as recognized by diagnostic tools such as the DSM-IV, personality tests such as the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (AQ), Hare Psychology Checklist (PCL and PCL-R), as well as long and detailed risk assessment measures such as the LSI-R.

This is not to say that diagnostic categories are inherently restrictive and potentially misleading; they allow service providers to more efficiently administer treatment, and keep track of certain kinds of offenders to document changes in their behaviour. Thus when considering violent offending, it is impossible not to consider APD factors, with as many as 60-80% of federal offenders displaying one or more of these antisocial characteristics. However, it is imperative to consider individual differences in offenders when tailoring treatment. With a variety of individual characteristics comes a complimentary diversity of treatment methods, as service-providers continuously try to adapt to the dynamic changes in their target populations. Below is a brief survey of these varieties of treatment, including their purpose, effectiveness, and availability.

Correctional Treatment for Violent Offenders

Treatment Targets

Because of the incredible heterogeneity among violent offenders, treatment targets are varied and often complex. For instance, some instrumentally violent offenders can be either dystonic or systonic in regarding their victim injury caused; they can be either suffering from a major mental disorder or not; they can be juvenile or adult, and so on. Below is a sample of the various kinds of violent offenders with their respective treatment targets in brackets.

Mentally Disordered Violent Offenders

Juvenile Offenders

Sexually-Violent Offenders

Instrumentally-Violent Offenders

Expressively Violent Offenders

Treatment Methods

Just as treatment targets for violent offenders must consider the heterogeneity of their personalities, dispositions, demographics, and lifestyle characteristics, treatment methods must be similarly suited to each offender. However, in correctional rehabilitation, fewer varieties are used. Cognitive-behavioural therapy is the most popular and the most effective for violent offenders, as well as most other adult offenders, in one form or the other. Below is brief description of the kinds of therapy operating in correctional facilities today, their most typical participants and targets, and methods of working.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

There are three or four major methods of cognitive behavioural therapy for violent offenders: anger and emotions management, cognitive-skills, cognitive self-change, and problem-solving. Anger and emotions management training is based on Novaco’s model of anger.

This model is based on the basic Stimulus-Organism-Response-Consequence Theory of behaviour. In this context, what is known as “anger control training” allows individuals to recognize their relative degree of arousal, and trace that arousal to one or more components of the model, such as that individual’s cognitive appraisal of the situation, the external events leading to that appraisal, and ideally, the behavioural response that results when that arousal-induced impulse is initiated. This is somewhat similar to Relapse Prevention therapy, where individuals are encouraged to recognize those situations or internal or external states of strain or dissonance that frequently precede antisocial, dysfunctional, or impulsive acts. Anger control training combines relaxation training with cognitive self-instructions. Together, both of these provide a kind of cognitive “environment” that protects the individual from behaving irrationally.

Anger management treatment is most effective when it targets specific types of anger problems in specific offenders, when it consists of at least 100 hours of total training, and when it includes only small groups of offenders. It is also essential that the risk level of offenders, or the severity of their anger problems, be matched with equally intense levels of treatment. While treatment gains have been consistently reported with high-risk offenders, treatment losses have also been reported when low-risk offenders are given a high-risk treatment regimen.

Cognitive-Skills Programming

Cognitive skills programs focus on improving participants’ ways of thinking about situations and solving problems in their everyday lives. According to McGuire (2005), they allow the participant, when faced with a difficult situation, to identify the type of problem being faced, control the first impulse to act upon that problem, invoke alternative solutions, think broadly about one’s options, anticipate future obstacles or implications for one’s decision, and finally, demonstrate empathy and understanding of others affected by one’s decision. Many of these skills are learned through trial and error and imitation throughout development, but in many cases they have been disrupted or neglected. One specific program of this approach is called Reasoning and Rehabilitation, which involves trained staff leading group activities and discussions surrounding social interaction, problem-solving, conflict-resolution, and self-management. In all cases these problems are skills-based, in that they impart functional skills to people that will assist them in problems they will face in the future. It is not enough to simply know and recognize one’s problems and appropriate ways of behaving; positive change requires one to learn the capacities to actually behave in appropriate ways. Because these problems are focused on this philosophy, they yield significantly large effect sizes; for example, Correctional Services Canada reported a reduction of 36% in recidivism in those who participated in the program.

Violence Prevention Unit Program (VPU)

Polaschek et al (2005) provide a description of similar programs focusing on cognitive skills in New Zealand’s Rimutaka Prison, housed in the Violence Prevention Unit (VPU). Treatment intensity is 330 hours, spread out over the course of 28 weeks. It is conducted in groups, including possible participation by family members, but individual treatment is also available. The program emphasizes “participant contribution,” as well as modeling, rehearsing, and practicing new skills.

The program consists of 8 separate components:

The program has proven to be effective in that it reduces recidivism rates among those who successfully completed the program, and doubles the time to reconviction for those that did not survive compliance. It does not work as well, however, in nonviolent offenders, and there still needs to be more research done in this area to conclusively lay out a cognitive-behavioural framework for preventing violent and nonviolent re-offending.

Functional Family Therapy

This method of treatment is directed towards serious juvenile offenders and their families. When family functions such as parental supervision, conflict resolution and emotional attachment are targeted, significant reductions in delinquency are obtained, not only in the juvenile offender, but in that offender’s siblings.

Motivational Interviewing

This is not so much a form of treatment as it is a form of improving offender “readiness.” Because motivation is one of the most crucial aspect of performing and completing a treatment program, and because many offenders lack such inherent motivation for a variety of reasons, specific interviewing techniques are used to induce motivation. Interviewers take a non-confrontational approach to drawing interest and motivation out of the participant, usually by presenting broad, open-ended questions that try to explore the participant’s objectives and what he or she would like to achieve from treatment sessions. Motivational Interviewing is intended to move the participant from one Stage of Change to another, specifically from the Contemplation Stage to the Preparation Stage (see stages of change). Once this has been achieved, the participant is ready to engage in the Action stage, where the newly acquired behaviours and skills are employed in a practical environment, such as the community. Motivational Interviewing has proven to be successful in addressing dropout and attrition rates in rehabilitation programs, but it is has garnered criticism surrounding its ethical nature, partly that it may represent an attempt to coerce change through a seemingly non-coercive, insidious, or pressured atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is both effective in reducing recidivism and assisting offenders in restructuring and improving their lives.


Wolf, Harlow Caroline. 1994. "Comparing federal and state prison inmates." Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

McGuire, J. 2005. Understanding Psychology and Crime. OpenU Press



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