People seen walking, from the back, in Sydney

How to improve justice programs

Reducing reoffending is a state priority in New South Wales. New sentencing reforms will increase referrals to behaviour change programs or other support services for people who are at high-risk of reoffending. Yet non-mandatory programs can often have low participation rates, particularly when programs are new.  

We set out to better understand the social context affecting voluntary participation in programs for people at-risk of reoffending. Here’s how we used behavioural science to promote better service delivery for this vulnerable cohort.

What we did

Our project involved three stages of fieldwork, which included a total of 46 interviews with service providers (35 interviewees representing 18 organisations); two experts on recidivism; nine interviews with clients; and site visits to five sites across metro Sydney and regional NSW.  

What we found

The key approaches to overcoming behavioural barriers to engagement are:

Reduce overly-complicated steps in signing-up clients. Sign-up process for voluntary programs can be protracted and cumbersome for both clients and case workers, introducing challenges that make a program unappealing (friction costs). Use default settings to make signing up easier and reduce hassle by consolidating appointments.

Increase a program’s appeal by clearly highlighting its unique benefits that are relevant for the individual participant. Eligible clients perceive that there are too many programs seemingly addressing similar rehabilitation services. This makes services of new programs seem less valuable (scarcity heuristic). Personalise delivery, giving clients a choice for specific services tailored to their needs.

Reduce the cognitive load (by reducing the number of options, or chunking information), and make the decision-making process motivating for clients. Due to past negative experiences with other services, and because there are too many decisions to make when considering new services, clients are put-off joining a new program (choice overload). The behavioural science tool of commitment devices and the intention gap can help clients make useful goals to keep them motivated.

Use simple communication tools, such as a script, to draw attention to important details. Program aims are not always clearly communicated, making it hard to respond to program requirements and other information (salience). Make joining attractive using a behaviourally-informed communications strategy. Present information in language that resonates with clients (framing effect). Use a clear call to action. Redress the risks that clients might associate with seeking help (risk aversion).

Positive reinforcement and culturally-meaningful approaches can reduce the stigma of seeking help. Clients often have life-long negative experiences with services which have left them feeling judged, or like they are “failures” (social stigma). Program screening tools and assessment can sometimes reinforce this negativity. Programs using motivational interviewing and other interactive techniques engender stronger engagement. Strengthening client’s self-worth and celebrating minor achievements throughout their program participation can motivate them to stay.

Consider timeliness of messages, tapping into the desire for a “fresh start.” Readiness to get rehabilitated is variable depending on age and life circumstances. However, clients will almost invariably experience a sense of exhaustion at the cycle of reimprisonment. They are especially open to the prospect of taking back control of their lives as they face the uncertainty of a sentencing outcome (fresh start effect). Experts tell us that the first 48 hours of being released into the community after an arrest is an especially pivotal time. A path to reuniting with family (especially children and grandchildren), or making amends with important people, is an appealing reason for change (where this contact is safe for family and others). SMART goals can help engage clients during this period of reflection (that is, setting specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals).

Read our report to find out more about how to increase engagement in voluntary programs.

Infographic on how to increse voluntary participation in programs. Includes: reducing overly complicated sign-up, highlighting benefits, and considering timely messages

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