Social Work, Corrections, and the Strengths Approach

by Katherine van Wormer

Professor of Social Work

and Mary Boes

Associate Professor of Social Work

University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls







The historical shift away from social work to custodial care expertise in the criminal justice system parallels the move away from rehabilitation to punishment in the wider society.  The shift within the social work profession to de-emphasize corrections,  similarly, reflects prevailing historical, political, and economic events.   This paper considers the demise of the rehabilitation ideal in conjunction with the mass media hype and a right wing political backlash concerning crime and drug use.  An argument is made that the strengths perspective of social work is highly relevant to work with offenders, especially female offenders.  



A paper presented at the Canadian Association of Social Workers

National Social Work Conference,

June 20 - 24, 1998

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


Address replies to Katherine van Wormer,


Social Work, Corrections, and the Strengths Approach

The theoretical framework for this paper is the strengths/empowerment perspective, the approach which most closely parallels the rehabilitation model of correction.  Both authors have worked in various capacities in the criminal justice system; the first author published a monograph on women in prison and later counseled offenders with chemical dependency problems; the second author worked as a probation officer for seven years in Oregon and Pennsylvania.  Our purpose in writing this article is to present the case for the strengths approach in corrections, an approach which has been a recurrent theme in social work history and which is receiving increasing attention today.          


Central to the profession of social work is a concern with social justice.  According to the CASW Code of Ethics (1991 Preamble), "social workers are dedicated to the welfare and self realization of human beings... and to the achievement of social justice for all."  And to the U.S. NASW Code of Ethics (1996:V1:6) similarly, “the social worker should advocate changes in policy and promote social justice.”   The values of contemporary society, however, are sometimes clearly at odds with the ideals and principles of the profession.  A politically popular and increasingly widespread reaction on both sides of the Canadian/U.S. border has been a “lock ‘em up; throw away the key” mentality.  Punishment comes first and treatment last under the modern political agenda, an agenda at sharp variance with the humanitarian and egalitarian ideals, which Robert Mullaly (1993) delineates as the cornerstone of social work's ideal society.  

Social work has been promoting social justice for some time, all the way back to the settlement houses and children’s aid societies.  And until the mid-1920s, a substantial amount of social work effort, as Jerome Miller (1995) informs us, was directed at institutional wards of  state -- individuals confined to prisons, reform schools and the like.  And long before that, the first days in the late 1800s in England, the charities and corrections movement regulated the poor by depriving the "undeserving" of aid.  The two words, charity and corrections, in fact, were once used almost interchangeably (van Wormer, 1997).  In later years, the mantle of professionalism, however, geared them away from authoritarian thinking and authoritarian institutions into work with troubled individuals in a variety of less coercive settings, namely, community mental health centers and child welfare.  In the U.K. and Canada, and to a lesser extent in the U.S., social workers are becoming increasingly involved in working with offenders.  Given the tremendous upsurge in drug related prosecutions, a heightened focus on substance abuse treatment is only logical.  Treatment of sexual offenders, battering men, and their victims are other areas in need of enhanced social work services.  Mental health counseling should be a high priority as well.  An underlying assumption of this paper is that social workers, with their strengths, ethnic-centered awareness, have a major contribution to make to the field of criminal justice.  Social workers have a contribution to make in terms of one-on-one counseling and in shaping policy.

The Contemporary Scene

The globalization and privatization of society are reflected in the homogenization of news stories: The aftermath of shootings in a schoolyard which would once have been merely regional news is beamed onto TV screens across the world.  Meanwhile, newspaper headlines from Dallas to Winnipeg report on the urgency to crack down on crime, crime which according to the federal sources in both the U.S. and Canada, is actually on the decrease.  In Canada, according to a speech by the solicitor general, crime rates are down for the sixth year in a row (Scott, 1998).  On May 13, 1998, banner headlines in the Winnipeg Free Press proclaimed, "War on Youth Crime."  The Liberal Party proposes lowering the age limit to 14 from 16 for serving adult sentences and publishing the names of youths convicted of crimes among other harsh proposals (Samyn, 1998).  Still, according to Turpin (1997) writing in Corrections Today, in the most recent Canadian

election, crime was not a major campaign issue.  This was in sharp contrast to elections in Britain and the U.S., however, where even the left wing parties came out on the offensive, calling for more police, tougher prosecutions and more law and order in general.  Reflecting an Americanization of penal approaches, Britain recently has appointed its first drug czar. 

Although Turpin correctly perceives Canada as much more subdued regarding criminality than the U.S. or Britain, it seems likely that there is a trend toward less compassion here too.  The hype in international mass media, the impact of the global economy, the appeal of right wing zealotry to people who feel economically powerless, and contagion from events south of the 48th and 49th border--all bode ill for progressive criminal justice policies.  Ultimately, the current set of global economic and political forces that are driving countries to reduce their federal budget deficit combined with increased health care expenditures will lead to similar solutions.  A study of U.S. and Canadian newspaper and Internet services reveals the following parallel political developments with special relevance to women: -  Budget cuts to women's shelters; reduction in welfare benefits that would enhance battered women's escape from dangerous situations;         

-  A social climate in which the welfare state is seen as the problem rather than  the solution that is especially hard on woman who as caregivers are more              dependent than men on aid by the state;

- Gender-blind policies that often work against women as mothers are pushed into a low-paying labor market;

-  As more men are getting custody of their children, women increasingly are required to pay child support;  harsh punishments are meted out for women who break the law and keep their children  after visitation;

-  Rapidly increasing incarceration rates for women especially in connection with

the international war on drugs;  the U.S. saw the execution of two women in 1998; -  Impact of racism and classism reflected in high percentage of convicted women who are  aboriginal or of African or Hispanic descent;  

-  Recent scandals in women's prisons involving extreme brutality, especially in Georgia in the U.S. and in the Federal Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario.

On the bright side, in Canada, as we shall see, the correctional system is being redesigned and decentralized for federally sentenced women; a wealth of innovative proposals has emerged following a spate of highly publicized reports of female inmate mistreatment, especially at the hands of male guards.  In Canada, furthermore, there is a strong move toward the restoring of balance between offender and victim.  This concept, which has become known as restorative justice, has been widely practiced in work with Native offenders and journals of all ethnic backgrounds.

A society’s treatment of those who break its laws is widely  regarded as a barometer of its social climate.  Violent societies tend to mete out severe and often violent punishments as well as to provide conditions of oppressions ripe for the criminalization of citizens in the first place. Conditions of oppression are the breeding grounds of resentment and hatred associated with crime (Gilligan, 1986).  In moralistic societies such as the U.S., a nation which has never been able to cast off the shackles of its Puritan heritage, and which has almost prided itself on  demeaning work environments, dire poverty in the midst of plenty, a steady diet of horrible violence in the mass media, and high availability of guns, the climate is conducive to violent crime as well as to harsh punishment.  Even when the crime rate is not particularly high in a given area, moreover, mass media highlighting of horrifying events from far away serves to incite fear in the general public and perpetuate cries for revenge.  Kinder and gentler societies such as Sweden and Norway, in contrast, have much lower crime rates and much more humane treatment

of criminals. 

            This is the law and order setting, then, in which the practice of social work makes its entrance.  Social work, as we are all aware, is the profession dedicated to maximizing the dignity and worth of individuals and of reinforcing their strengths and resources.  It is immediately obvious that these ideals of empowerment and empathy may create some conflicts for the worker in a system constrained by punitive legislation.  And yet, for women under the jurisdiction of the courts, in circumstances of extreme disempowerment, the need for an empathic connection, an affirming voice, is paramount.

The Strengths Perspective

            At the heart of the strengths perspective is a belief in the basic goodness of humankind, a faith that individuals, however downtrodden or debilitated, can discover strengths in themselves that they never knew existed.  The strengths or empowerment approach is a crucial part of effective therapy and increasingly articulated in the social work literature (Mullaly, 1993).  No matter how little or how much may be expressed at one time, as Weick, Rapp, Sullivan, and Kisthardt (1989) explain, people often have a potential that is not commonly realized.  A belief in human potential is tied to the notion that people have untapped, undetermined reservoirs of mental, physical, emotional, social and spiritual abilities which can be mobilized in times of need.  This is where professional helping comes into play -- in tapping into the possibilities, tapping into not what is but what can be.

            Deficit, disease, and dysfunction metaphors permeate treatment at every stage of the process, from intake to termination (Cowger, 1994).  In the criminal justice system, clients often find their very selfhood defined by their crimes.  For such persons, whose views of therapy and of all authority figures are apt to be decidedly negative, a positive approach is essential to establish the one crucial ingredient of effective treatment -- trust.  Sometimes one encounter or one supportive relationship -- whether with a teacher, social worker, or priest -- can offer a turning point in a life of crime. 

            The most poignant example of a reversal of a life of crime, of a seemingly miraculous turnabout, was revealed to the world in the case of 35 year old Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War.  It is not her execution, however, but the loss of what could have been, that makes her case tragic.  Here was a drug-addicted axe-murderer , turned born-again Christian, who helped fellow inmates and moved the hearts of compassionate people all over the world.  " I'll be face to face with Jesus now," she said as she went to her untimely death. (See the Economist, 1998)

            Another murderer, Jean Harris, a high school principal at an exclusive girls' school, also committed murder in a drug-affected state, and she also found repentance and even a humility of sorts in prison.  During her term at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York state, Harris was credited with setting up a thriving model Children's Center operated by prisoners (Faith, 1993).  During Harris's confinement and personal suffering, her attitude changed from bitterness and denial to love for her fellow human beings.

Let us briefly consider the relevance of the strengths approach for working with female offenders.  These two examples -- one of a woman born into the most miserable of circumstances, the other, a socialite -- illuminate a theme we see expanded upon in this paper, the theme of personal empowerment.  One of the major tasks of the professional helper is to facilitate such change.  Within the justice context, the challenge consists of promoting personal power in people whose lives have become circumscribed to a varying degrees and whose very existence has been devalued and even criminalized. 

            Of special relevance to criminal behavior, and without which change is unlikely, is the taking of personal responsibility for one's actions and for one's life.  The treatment relationship can serve as a powerful tool for helping the client change cognitive misconceptions that result in self destructive thoughts and behavior.  Even in a life most crushed by circumstances of time and place, there nevertheless exists the potential for actions other than those (for example, heavy drinking, violent outbursts, etc.) that have become problematic.  This belief in the human potential is at the core of the therapeutic relationship.

Brief Literature Review

            We are dealing here with the literatures of two separate enterprises -- criminal justice and mental health counseling.  Whereas the criminal justice emphasis is largely on the state enterprise and legal prerogatives, social work, in its mental health component,  has as its focal point, the individual within the system.  And yet the two literatures share a commonality : Both are applied as opposed to strictly academic fields; both are closely bound up with the social and political forces of the day.  Prison reform, innovative rehabilitation programs, and generous social services tend to go together.  Preparation for war, mandatory sentencing laws, and spending cutbacks tend to go together also.  The way criminals are treated in a society, in short, reflects the ethos of the culture.

Criminal Justice Literature and Rehabilitative Goals

To Theodore Zeldin, (1994) the most insidious impediment to compassion is a cynical or despairing view of humanity.  This phenomenon, as Zeldin further states, can be illustrated by the experience of the U.S.: Disillusioned by mass media sensationalism in crime reporting, high

criminal recidivism rates, debates over treatment effectiveness, and general political conservatism, legislators have turned to a punitive, severe sentencing approach that is immensely popular with the general public.  In Canada, likewise, a public outcry against the leniency of the courts has tempered expansion of the kind of therapeutic programming that once was very much in vogue (Evans, 1995).  Most of the vast expenditures in the U.S. criminal justice system, accordingly, are for law enforcement, punishment and custody, not for prevention or treatment.        The predominant treatment modality utilized in correctional treatment programming today is the innocuously sounding Cognitive Skills Program.  Developed in Canada, the Correctional Program Assessment Inventory is currently in its sixth edition (Gendreau and Andrews, 1996).  What Gendreau and Ross (1980) heralded as the cognitive revolution in corrections was inspired by Yochelson and Samenow’s (1976) voluminous writings and popular workshops on the criminal personality.  Based on their work exclusively with male antisocial offenders at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C., the “revolutionary” framework was designed to tear down criminals’ defenses, the tendency, for example, of rapists and robbers to blame their victims for the crimes inflicted upon them.  Van Voorhis, Baswell, and Lester (1997) praise Yochelson and Samenow’s work as especially useful to counselors and custodial staff in correcting inmates’ errors in thinking.  Institutional staff are taught the following correctional techniques:

                      Accept no excuses for irresponsible attitudes or behaviors.

                      Point out ways in which the offender may be refusing to accept responsibility.

                      Call attention to, and do not accept “power thrusts.”

                      Teach offenders that trust must be earned, and call attention to other instances when the offender is betraying the trust of others.

These concepts are used with incarcerated DWI (driving while intoxicated) offenders in

Iowa and also at the women’s prison in Mitchellville, Iowa.  In sharp contrast to the strengths perspective, this approach is exclusively negative.  And yet the focus on cognitive errors is one which can easily be adapted (but from a positive rather than a negative perspective) to help women believe in themselves and in their potential.

One goal of what Bayse (1996) terms the moral-cognitive approach serves to encourage male inmates’ awareness of how they described their victims so as to arouse feelings of guilt and self-disgust.  Perhaps this focus may be warranted with the type of person for whom they were designed, the diagnosable psychopath or man without a conscious, no called the person with antisocial personality.  Citing Yochelson and Samenow’s work, Bayse (1996) further asserts that narcissism or self-centeredness is the central theme of the criminal’s psychological makeup.  The criminal views life, friendships, and even love with the thought of, “What’s in it for me?”  Helping victimizers to empathize with their victims, to stop devaluing them, is instrumental in helping them mature ethically and to quit using people.

Many men in trouble with the law, however, are non-violent offenders, and even many of the violent offenders are putting on an act of bravado for survival within prison walls.  (Psychological testing, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory [MMPI], can fairly effectively differentiate among various types of criminal mentalities.)  The overwhelming majority of women caught in the throes of the criminal justice system have been convicted of drug offenses or crimes of passion.  Still others have been merely “in the wrong place at the wrong time” or are taking the rap for somebody else.  Some have been convicted more because of poor legal defense than their own criminal behavior.  Many of female offenders’ problems most likely stem from addictive tendencies and/or relationship issues.  They are in trouble with the law because essentially a public health problem has been criminalized.  The narrow, one-size-fits-all approach can be downright detrimental to persons who do not fit the criminal blaming mold.

            Rarely is the strengths or empowerment perspective articulated as such in the criminal justice literature.  A computer search of the criminal justice abstracts index (as of February 1998) reveals no listing for articles with the heading strengths approach or strengths perspective.  A search through the criminal justice journals themselves, however, revealed a notable exception, a strengths-based practice article for work with adolescents (Clark, 1998).  Writing in Federal Probation, Clark points us in the direction of a focus on solutions rather than problems, and a focus on youth capabilities rather than liabilities.  Elsewhere, the empowerment concept, however, is used as a descriptive term for progressive work with juveniles, female victims, and occasionally female offenders according to the computer index.  The gender difference in the use of an empowerment approach is striking.  See for example, Harmsworth (1991:135).

Despite the absence of a comprehensive strengths formulation, several works on correctional counseling do infuse principles of a positive, client-oriented treatment philosophy throughout the chapters.  As for example, Paul Haun’s  (1998), Emerging Criminal Justice: Three Pillars for a Proactive Justice System.  Calling for reinforced community corrections and punishments for crimes that allow for non-restrictive environments, Haun proposes a restorative approach to criminal justice, one built on the concepts of community healing, social support, and innovative community based programming.

            The American Correctional Association (ACA), a professional organization which advocates for the professional interests of workers in jails, prisons, and the community maintains a focus on rehabilitation and treatment as proper correctional goals.  During the annual Congress of Correction, The ACA (1997) adopted the following policies for correctional professionals and agencies recommending substance abuse treatment and parent training programs to break the cross-generational “cycle of violence.”

            Paradoxically, the ACA also passed a resolution in support of more funding for jails and prisons.  One would think that a moratorium in a new prison construction would be more to the point.  On the other hand, continuing expansion of the prison industry guarantees unprecedented job opportunities for correctional personnel, so this perhaps explains the seeming inconsistency in professional policies.  The ACA opposition to legislation barring color television or college courses or weightlifting options, in part, is an opposition to the loss of discretion by correctional authorities to exercise their best professional judgement to make rules for their facilities (Alexander, 1996).

The Correctional Service of Canada, similarly, seeks to maintain a balance between the stress on control of offenders and an awareness of the importance of assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens (Griffiths and Verdun-Jones, 1994).  Within the custodial facilities, accordingly, a wide variety of programs and services are provided, including inmate employment and vocational training programs.  Consistent with the North American stress on individual responsibility, inmates must seek out their own rehabilitative programs; the responsibility for participation has shifted away from the providers to the offenders for maximum effectiveness. 

A major criticism of the Canadian system of justice is the overcrowding of facilities related to the ever increasing portion of the population that is incarcerated. (Canada ranks third in the world in the number of adults incarcerated although a long way behind Russia and the U.S., each of which has almost three times the Canadian percentage.  Canada’s rate of locking up children is excessively high as well [Cayley, 1999]).

Descriptive studies of recent programming in the Canadian correctional system are provided by Kerr (1998) and Hannah-Moffat (1999).  In Canada, as Kerr reveals, women’s correctional programs are informed by five basic principles: empowerment; meaningful and responsible choices; respect and dignity; a supportive environment; and shared responsibility.  The system, notes Kerr, is moving away from the old punishment paradigm into a healing paradigm. This programming, as we learn from Hannah-Moffat, can be traced to the reform strategies of the 1990s which culminated in a new woman-centered model of punishment.  The Canadian concern with addressing the uniqueness of women’s needs marks a sharp contrast to the U.S. feminist focus on equality -- equalization of male/female prison opportunities, especially in the educational/vocational realm (van Wormer and Bartollas, in press).

As rates of imprisonment have soared in Canada, criticism of the situation has increased coupled with a search for new directions (Scott, 1998).  A vision of justice as peacemaking rather than punishment is an encouraging development.  Emanating from Mennonite church conflict resolution teachings and Aboriginal practices, this new but not new vision of justice has spread into the mainstream.  The Correctional Service of Canada, in partnership with First Nation communities, has established federal healing facilities for Aboriginal offenders (Scott, 1998).  The challenge, according to Scott, is to explore restorative justice options in all communities.  Typically, the procedure involves the convening of family group conferences moderated by a state official to reach agreements on restitution when a wrong has been committed; the emphasis is on restoration and concensus rather than conflict.  The reoffense rate for young offenders participating in this formality has been shown to be far below that of traditional approaches (Cayley, 1999).

Literature from the Helping Professions

            Within the social work practice literature, a focus on client strengths has received increasing attention in recent years.  The strengths perspective, as Kirst-Ashman and Hull (1997) note, assumes that power resides in people and that we should do our best to promote power by refusing to label clients, avoiding paternalistic treatment, and trusting clients to make appropriate decisions.  Two popular textbooks, for example, Generalist Social Work Practice: Empowering Approach (Miley, O'Melia and Dubois, 1998) and The Empowerment Approach to Social Work Practice (Lee, 1994) incorporate the principle of strengths into every phase of the helping process.  Although the literature consistently articulates the importance of a stress on clients' strengths and competencies, however, we must all be cognizant of the reality of standard clinical practice built on a treatment problem/deficit orientation, a reality shaped by agency accountability and the dictates of managed care.  Third party payment schemes mandate a diagnosis based on relatively serious disturbances in a person's functioning (e.g., organic depression or suicide attempts) and short-term therapy to correct the presenting problem.  Furthermore, the legal and political mandates of many agencies, the elements of social control embodied in both the institution and ethos of the agency, may strike a further blow to the possibility of partnership and collaboration between client and helper (Saleebey, 1997).

            The strengths perspective has been applied to a wide variety of client situations: work with the mentally ill, child welfare clients, homeless women in emergency rooms, the elderly, and African American families.  The concept of strength is also part and parcel of the growing literature on empowerment, feminist therapy, narrative therapy, client/person centered approach, and the ethnic-sensitive model.  In his comprehensive overview of social work theory, Francis Turner (1996) perceives two common threads unifying contemporary theory.  These are the person-in-the-situation conceptualization and a holistic understanding of clients in terms of their strengths and available resources. 

            In their article, "Empowering Female Offenders: Removing Barriers to Community Based Practice," Wilson and Anderson (1997) provide a prime illustration of strengths-based approach to correctional treatment.  A key component of their practice model is the placement of competence and coping within a sociopolitical context.  Empowerment practice with female inmates entails intervention directed at the economic, educational, social, and political structures of society in addition to strengths-focused individual and group therapy with women.         

Effectiveness Studies

The Cognitive Skills Program, developed in Canada, has been held up as an exemplary, effective, and properly evaluated program (Matthews and Pitts, 1998; and Scott, 1998).  A critical examination of the program and its evaluation, however, reveals serious flaws, according to Matthews and Pitts.  The major failing of the evaluation is that it tells us very little about what works and what doesn’t.  Scott, in his position as solicitor general, declares that the Correctional Service of Canada is committed to a research-based approach.  While recidivism rates for inmates in cognitive skill and sex offender programs have been reduced, according to Scott, we also know that programs offered in the community are more effective than programs behind bars.

Research on the effectiveness of female inmate programs are scarce (Loucks and Zamble, 1999).  Research based on the strengths model in work with female offenders is even more scarce.  Impressive results are being reported from New Zealand in correctional workers’ use of family group conferences to address youth crimes; such conferences which resolve conflict through restorative justice avoid the negatives that accompany traditional sentencing practices.  Costs have fallen dramatically and the reoffending rate significantly reduced (Cayley, 1999). 

In his review of all the research to date on the strengths model of case management, Rapp (1998) concluded that although research is limited to two experimental (involving a control group), one quasi-experimental, and three non-experimental studies, results have been consistently positive.  The focus of the studies was persons with severe mental disorders, and the success rate was measured in terms of a reduction in the need for hospitalization and an unanticipated generalization of success in other areas such as sociability and community involvement.  These positive results, although limited in scope, augur well for clients who are involved in a close treatment relationship for emotional problems, a relationship characterized, as Rapp terms it, by trust, friendliness, reciprocity, and purpose.

In a small scale program evaluation of therapeutic services at the Canadian Prison for Women, Kathleen Kendall (1993) confirmed the findings of previous reports which identified mental health and substance abuse services as critical programming areas for incarcerated women.  The prison where the program evaluation was conducted had suffered the loss of seven inmates to suicide in a five year period; six of the victims were aboriginal.  The program evaluation involved qualitative interviews with the 40 inmates and 20 staff members.

Because the perception among staff was that grueling therapy sessions with inmates had pushed them into dealing with disturbing aspects of the past, and over the brink into suicide, inmate perceptions were very important.  Prisoners reported overwhelming support for the counselors at the prison.  Kendall attributes the warm response to the feminist therapy approach and trauma expertise of the therapists.  Identified as most helpful to the inmates were: assistance in taking control over their own lives, the opportunity to value and be valued by others, and the existence of mutually respectful relationships.

The feminist approach provided at the Canadian federal prison for women parallels the empowerment approach advocated in this article.  Kendall describes the framework as consisting of the following components:

                      A recognition of the close connection between women’s marginalized status (e.g. poverty, abuse, sexism, racism) and their criminal activity;

                      Stress on women’s ability to resist violence in its various forms and to find creative ways of coping;

                      The belief that as women develop a deeper awareness of their own strengths they will take greater control over their own lives;

                      An awareness of the paradox that prisons generally remove whatever autonomy women have left, yet expect mature behavior from them, an experience reminiscent of earlier abusive experiences.

Kendall summarizes her findings by noting that although the therapeutic services provided by the prison were helpful, the creation of real choices for women lies in developing genuine alternatives to incarceration.  Since her report was completed, the federal prison for women is being decentralized into regional centers for maximum community involvement.  Further research is needed into the long term effectiveness of a strengths/empowerment approach with adult female offenders.  


            A clear understatement is to say that these empowering and rehabilitative goals discussed in this article are not the goals of most correctional systems or penal institutions in which social workers are employed.  With job possibilities in the correctional field growing at an unprecedented rate paralleling the upsurge in incarceration, social workers in corrections are in an ideal position to work toward institutional and political change (O’Hare, 1996).  Even in the United States, where forces of punitiveness seem to have momentarily triumphed over forces of rehabilitation, social workers, as Johnson (1995) thoughtfully urges, should not relinquish their correctional role.  Professionals who like ourselves harbor strong moral objections to the incarceration mania that is gripping North America can resolve like Quakers to “be in the world without being totally of the world.”  Idealistic workers can work to change the system when the time is right and in the meantime help a few individuals along the way.  In Canada, hopefully, the tide is turning already toward a new view of criminal justice, one that stresses accountability over incarceration.

In this article, we have examined the viability of using a strengths focused framework for correctional practice.  One fact that has emerged from this discussion is that empowerment counseling is, at its core, every bit as much a cognitive approach as the Cognitive Skills Programming.  The strengths approach reinforces healthy and positive thinking.  Unlike the Cognitive Skills model, however, this approach is positive-seeking, collaborative rather than confrontational and validating of the individual’s worth and experience.  Our review of preliminary effectiveness data showed encouraging results with this perspective.  In conclusion: 

We should never underestimate the power of an approach based on strengths, on possibility rather than probability, and on situations rather than problems.  The strengths approach may not change all the people or even most people.  But, in the final analysis, it is the only thing that can.


Alexander, E.  (1997).  A time for courage.  In American Correctional Association.  The state of corrections: 1996 proceedings.  ACA Annual Conference.  Lanham, MD: ACA, 19-24.

American Correctional Association.  (1997).  Policies for correctional professionals and agencies: ACA.

Canadian Association of Social Workers.  (1991).  Code of Ethics.  Ottawa, Canada: CASW.

Cayley, D. (1999, March 27). Applause, please, for the new tack on young lawbreakers. The   Globe and Mail, 1.

Clark, M. (1998, June). Strength-based practice: The ABC’s of working with adolescents who don’t want to work with you. Federal Probation 62 (1), 46-53.

Cowger, C.D. (1994). Assessing client strengths: Clinical assessment for client empowerment.   Social Work 39 (3), 262-268.

Economist. (1998, February 7). Man, woman, death and God, 28-29.

Evans, D.  (1995).  Offender groups and correctional services in Canada.  In J. Turner and F. Turner, Canadian Social Welfare, 3rd Ed.  Scarborough, ON: Allyn & Bacon.

Faith, K.  (1993).  Unruly women: The politics of confinement and resistance.  Vancouver, British Columbia: Press Gang.

Gendreau, P. and Andrews, D. (1996). Correctional program implementation inventory, sixth edition. Saint John, New Brunswick, CA: University of New Brunswick.

Gendreau, P. and Ross, R. (1980). Effective correctional treatment. Toronto: Butterworth.

Gilligan, J. (1996). Violence: Reflections on a national experience. New York: Vintage Books.Griffiths, C. & Verdun-Jones, S.N.  (1994).  Canadian criminal justice, 2nd Ed.  Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company

Hannah-Moffat, K. (1999). Moral agent or actuarial subject: Risk and Canadian women’s imprisonment. Theoretical Criminology 3 (1), 71-94.

Harmsworth, P. (1993).  Managing violent offenders in the correctional setting: A coordinated                approach.  In S.A. Gerull and W. Lucas (Eds.), Serious violent offenders: Sentencing,                     psychiatry, and law reform. Canberra, Australia: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Johnson, H.W. (1995). Criminal and juvenile justice. In H.W. Johnson (Ed.), The social services: An introduction. Itasca, IL: Peacock, 199-222.

Kendall, K. (1993). Program evaluation of therapeutic services at the prison for women. Ottawa: Correctional Service of Canada.

Kerr, D. (1998). Substance abuse among female offenders. Corrections Today 60 (7), 114-119.

Lee, J. (1994). The empowerment approach to social work practice. New York: Columbia University Press.

Loucks, A. and Zamble, E. (1999). Predictions of recidivism in serious female offenders: Canada searches for predictors common to both men and women. Corrections Today 6 (1), 26-32.

Matthews, R. and Pitts, J. (1998). Rehabilitation, recidivism, and realism: Evaluating violence reduction programs in prison. Prison Journal 78 (4), 390-404.

McWhirter, E.H. (1991).  Empowerment in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development            69(3), 222-227.

Miley, K.K., O'Melia, M., DuBois, B. (1998). Generalist social work practice: An empowering                approach. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Miller, J.  (1995).  Criminal justice: Social Work roles.  In Encyclopedia of Social Work, 19th edition: 653-659.  Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Mullaly, R.  (1993).  Structural social work: Ideology, theory, and practice.  Toronto, Canada: McClelland and Stewart.

O'Hare, T. (1996). Court-ordered versus voluntary clients: Problem differences and readiness for             change. Social Work 41 (4), 417-422.

Rapp, C.A. (1998). The strengths model: Case management with people suffering from severe and persistent mental illness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Saleebey, D. (1997). Introduction: Power in the people. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths                    perspective in social work practice. New York: Longman Press, 3-17.

Samyn, P.  (1998, May 13).  War on youth crime.  Winnipeg Free Press, Al.

Scott, A. (1998, December). Canada’s vision of effective corrections. Corrections Today 60 (7), 146-149.

Singer, L.R. (1991). A non-punitive paradigm of probation practice: some sobering thoughts. British Journal of Social Work 21, 611-626.

Turner, F. (1996). An interlocking perspective for treatment. In F. Turner (Ed.), Social work                   treatment: Interlocking theoretical approaches. New York: The Free Press, 699-706.

Turpin, J.  (1997, August).  Great Britain and Canada address criminal justice system.  Corrections Today, 138-140.

Van Den Bergh, N. (Ed.), (1995).  Introduction. Feminist practice in the 21st century. Washington DC: NASW Press, xix.

Van Voorhis, P., Braswell, M. and Lester, D. (1999). Correctional counseling and rehabilitation (3rd ed.), Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

van Wormer, K. (1997). Social welfare: A world view. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

van Wormer, K. and Bartollas, C. (1999). Women and the criminal justice system: Gender, race,          and class. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, in press.

Weick, A., Rapp, C., Sullivan, W.P. and Kisthardt, W. (1989, July).  A strengths perspective for social work practice. Social Work, 350-389.

Wilson, M. and Anderson, C. (1997, Fall).  Empowering female offenders: Removing barriers to              community-based practice. Affilia 12 (3), 342-358.

Zeldin, T. (1994). An intimate history of humanity. New York: Harper Collins.