Sociology Corrections
Marie Segrave
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0197


Corrections is a term used to refer to a key component of the criminal justice system. It is used both as an applied term, referring at times to an institution, most often prison, and more frequently to refer more broadly to the system of collective agencies involved in punishment, supervision, and in some cases treatment (i.e., parole and bail systems, as well as community corrections). It is also used as a term to encapsulate a significant field of criminological inquiry. The latter use is the primary focus here, the scholarship dedicated to theoretical and empirical inquiry of correctional practice. For the most part, the focus is the developments over time in corrections practice, looking to the dominant models of understanding that have influenced practice primarily, but not exclusively, in Western nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. It is important to note that the study of corrections and that of penology overlap to some extent, and at times the terms are used interchangeably in some scholarship. However, the focus here is on corrections and the particular developments over time in the broad range of policies and practices that are the subject of theoretical and empirical inquiries that address parole, imprisonment, and probation. Moreover, there is an emphasis on the understanding that prisons and the system more generally are designed to change people. The key waves of scholarship in this field have echoed broader sociopolitical understandings and approaches to crime, justice, victimization, and offending. Since the middle of the 20th century, the main changes have reflected various understandings of the offender, increasing awareness of the victim, changing roles and expectations of the state, the intention and operation of the criminal justice system, and systems of punishment. One of the main developments over time in the field of corrections, reflecting shifts in theoretical and empirical scholarship, has been the overarching institutional philosophy informing practice within and beyond imprisonment (with related developments in the area of community corrections). This is not the focus of this discussion, however, and additional resources are provided in the section Related Bibliographies.

General Overview

The early developments in corrections were focused on treatment, within a model of medicalization, which largely focused on “curing” or “correcting” offenders through treatment. Within this paradigm, individuals tended to be pathologized and without agency: they were the subjects of treatment. In the 1970s there was a seismic change in thinking about the role of the state and the offender, informed by works such as Martinson 1974 (cited under Classic Works), whose review of program evaluation led to the conclusion that “nothing works”; that is, efforts to work with offenders did not result in reducing recidivism. While Bottoms and McWilliams 1979 (cited under Classic Works) suggested that the treatment-based approach should be replaced with a “non-treatment” paradigm whereby the offender was closely involved in identifying what help he or she required and working collaboratively to identify tasks and processes to follow to avoid future reoffending. However, the move against rehabilitation and the abandonment of treatment were later brought into question, in a further wave of re-engaged scholarship. Some work sought to bridge treatment and help, to identify that there are possibly effective tools to treat offenders. Lipsey 1992 (cited under Recent Works), applying meta-analysis approaches to the analysis of treatment, demonstrated that some offender treatment does work to reduce recidivism—for the most part not punitively oriented programs. Latessa and Holsinger 2011, Correctional Contexts: Contemporary and Classical Readings, best captures some of these critical works. More recent overviews are available via collections such as Clear, et al. 2015 and Whitehead, et al. 2012, which offer important perspectives on developments and issues in America. For a more international overview, there is Petersilia and Reitz 2012.

  • Clear, T., M. Reisig, and G. Cole. 2015. American corrections. 11th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    This book has been updated regularly and offers a student or entry-level scholar a comprehensive introduction to the breadth of issues related to corrections, with a major focus on American corrections. It includes an overview of history, corrections practice, correctional theory and policy, correction-related law, and future developments.

  • Latessa, E., and A. Holsinger. 2011. Correctional contexts: Contemporary and classical readings. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This collection offers an insightful overview on the development of corrections, with a particular focus on the United States. It presents important articles and offers an excellent foundation for understanding contemporary practices and their historical links. It examines correctional practices within and outside of institutions, such as prisons, and presents important critical work that has shaped thinking and practice at key points in history.

  • Petersilia, J., and K. Reitz. 2012. The Oxford handbook of sentencing and corrections. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199730148.001.0001

    This handbook is focused primarily on the United States, but differs from the other collections as it written for advanced scholars and researchers who offer a detailed theoretical and empirical interrogation of contemporary and historical practices, which is more engaged and advanced. It includes chapters from leading scholars in the field: Michael Tonry on race, ethnicity, and punishment; Jonathan Simons on mass incarceration; Sherman and Strang on restorative justice.

  • Welsh, M. 2013. Corrections: A critical approach. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is recognized as a leading overview of corrections theory and practice. Michael Welsh’s presentation of the development of penology and the critical examination of historical and contemporary practices, and their links, remains an important contribution to the field and an important overview.

  • Whitehead, J., K. Dodson, and B. Edwards. 2012. Corrections: Exploring crime, punishment and justice in America. Waltham, MA: Anderson.

    This is also a textbook that offers an introductory overview to all of the key areas of corrections reading and important early scholarship.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.