Humanists believe that scientific methods should be applied to society, as well as to the natural world, and should be used to inform policy decisions. A key area, given current public anxiety, is the treatment of offenders. After all, we imprison a higher proportion of our citizens than the rest of Europe without producing a lower crime rate.
I’ve recently come across an evaluation of research in this area. It’s Home Office Research Study 291: The impact of corrections on re-offending: a review of ‘what works’, 2005. Not exactly a best-seller but worth a look.
The message of this report is stark. For instance: “The British evidence base is ‘very poor’” and “evaluations of correctional services’ interventions have used sub-optimal research designs”. Specific faults include sample sizes that are too small, lack of control groups and non-random assignment to intervention groups. These are very basic faults that many GCSE students would be able to spot.
Without decent research it’s impossible to judge the effectiveness of, for instance, the offender behaviour programmes on which we spent £110M last year. Still less is it possible to compare their effectiveness with other social programmes.
As in other areas the government needs to hold itself to higher standards.