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February 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Teaching Offenders to Change Their Thinking - and Change Their Lives

A young man is trying to explain his recent (mis)behavior to a group of his peers. They’re all federal offenders under supervised release with criminal histories that include violent crime and gang involvement. The group isn’t sympathetic. In fact, they’re pointing out the errors in thinking that led him to act that way. And they’ll end by discussing what he should do the next time temptation calls.

The men are participants in a program that uses Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to modify antisocial behavior—and thereby reduce recidivism. Their particular group employs Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), a technique to develop moral reasoning. It’s just one of half a dozen techniques that may use workbooks, counseling, and journals to help offenders change their thinking, change the way they make decisions, and hopefully keep them from re-offending.

“No one ever taught these offenders how to draw conclusions,” said Probation Officer Anna Pakiela in the Western District of Michigan. “We expect them to do right, when they really don’t know what that is. But this isn’t about excuses. MRT is about accepting personal responsibility and understanding how your actions impact others. Live within the rules, or don’t. But accept the consequences.”

Nationwide, probation offices in 13 districts receive funding from the Judiciary’s Research 2 Results program to run programs such as MRT, or Thinking for a Change, or Courage to Change Interactive Journaling, to name a few. The names of the programs may vary, but under the umbrella of CBT they all are based on the concept that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors. Give offenders the skills to change the way they think and they can change the way they behave.

Judge Robert Holmes Bell (W.D. Mich.), a federal judge for 20 years, is a supporter of CBT programs. In his district he works closely with offenders, offering what he calls enhanced probation. “The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 put the responsibility of post-incarceration in the Judiciary’s lap,” said Bell. “We’re statutorily vested with improving offenders’ lives. And now that we have the sentencing guidelines in proper perspective, is there something we can do that is thoughtful and supported by evidence-based practices to reduce the likihood that an offender will commit a new crime?”

Research shows that six criminogenic needs underlie recidivism. “They’re the reasons why we have problems with offenders re-offending,” said Rich Crawford, chief probation officer for the District of Hawaii. “Changing those needs can reduce recidivism.”

Crawford and his officers put a positive spin on those needs, emphasizing social values, self-control, peer relationships, family ties, employment, and responsible thinking. Offenders’ needs in each of these areas are identified and addressed through the district’s Courage to Change Interactive Journaling program. Initial program costs are for staff training; like all CBT programs, Hawaii’s program follows a manual, which ensures reliable and consistent delivery of the therapy by facilitators and officers. There is a journal designed for each of the criminogenic needs and a syllabus for the officers that helps identify issues and address general thinking patterns and behavior.

“The beauty of journals is in the way they can be applied,” said Probation Officer Jonathan Skedeleski. “We had one offender who didn’t read or write. But he could draw in his journal. We can compensate for a lack of literacy, especially because there is officer involvement.”

Typically, groups of up to nine offenders work with two officer-facilitators, but over 70 individuals in the District of Hawaii also work one-to-one with officers. As more officers are trained, more offenders will move into the interactive journaling program.

Offenders selected for the program begin by watching a video that’s a complete orientation to journaling. It also stresses conditions of supervision, as well as the relationship the offender will build with his or her supervising officer. That relationship includes motivational interviewing, a technique that gets offenders talking about themselves and questioning their thinking. Officers focus on what motivates the offender and identify areas of anti-social behavior and dysfunction.

One of the district’s journaling participants recently left a voice message for a probation officer. In it, the offender—a former bank robber with a history of methamphetamine use and mental health problems—thanks his probation officer. “Before, in other probation programs, I could never have talked to them like I talk to you,” he said. “That talk yesterday brought up my self-esteem. You actually give the people on probation motivation…. Thanks a lot for the talk yesterday. I really appreciate it. It might have been meaningless to you, but it meant a lot to me.”

“That’s the most important impact of what we’re doing,” said Crawford.

In the Western District of Michigan, Pakiela or a fellow probation officer and a counselor meet once a week for 1.5 hours with groups of 8 to 10 offenders in an MRT program. Offenders in the program all have a Risk Prediction Indicator of between 6 and 9.

“These are offenders at the highest risk for recidivism, with the least resources and limited positive support, who participated in violent crimes or had gang involvement,” said Pakiela. “Our objective is to teach them a way to make good decisions.”

Selected offenders enter an MRT group where they receive materials that are heavy on pictures and verbal presentations—a good fit, according to Pakiela, for offenders who either can’t read or read at a low level. They also receive plenty of feedback on their behavior from the group. “The groups have a unique dynamic,” said Pakiela. “They express themselves freely but they’re a supportive unit. They help each other.”

MRT trainers constantly check on the groups and facilitators, even videotaping sessions to ensure fidelity to the original training. Come September, the program’s one-year anniversary in the district, officers will go on to advanced training in MRT.

The district is just starting to gather statistics on recidivism rates among MRT participants. “We’ve had revocations, but we’ve seen those ‘light bulb’ moments too,” said Pakiela. “We’re planting seeds with the hope that five years down the road, they’ll do better. MRT is a tool to help them to do that.”

The District of Minnesota chose another CBT approach, a program called Thinking for a Change. “We did our research,” said Deputy Chief Probation Officer Mark Franssen. “Over 58 studies show that CBT is effective and virtually anyone can be trained in its techniques. Thinking for a Change was one of the leading programs. We liked its approach and what it can accomplish.”

The district has had approximately 300 offenders in the program since June 2007, with 2 sessions per week, 1.5 hours per session. “Probation officers struggle to take all of this on,” said Randy Nikula, program development specialist for the District of Minnesota’s probation office. “After all, there are only so many hours in a day. But they believe CBT programs are an effective way to work with offenders.” Offenders may enter a group soon after starting supervised release.

“Offenders are referred to a group when substance abuse, thinking errors, or new criminal behavior occurs,” said Chief Probation Officer Kevin Lowry. “The group focuses on changes in cognitive, social, and problem-solving skills. Offenders have homework assignments to practice their social skills, or to describe their thoughts in problem situations. They use new ways of thinking to reduce the risk and improve their problem-solving skills.”

For the district, the shift to group counseling is more efficient and cost-effective. The district also uses two contractor facilitators for each group instead of probation officers.

Quality assurance is key. As Franssen points out, if the program isn’t taught as designed, it won’t work. Supervision officers are trained in the same CBT program as contract facilitators, and monitor the groups for consistency.

“Because the programs are manualized, we know what offenders are working through each week and we can follow along in the manual and help to work on core issues. This is where the officer addresses the offender’s thinking errors in the process of changing behavior,” said Franssen.

“We have woven CBT into our entire supervision process, incorporating it into our treatment modalities, using it to deal with non-compliance during the course of supervision, and giving offenders the necessary skills to obtain and maintain gainful employment,” said Lowry.

“We can send re-offenders back to prison, but maybe we have to go further,” said Bell. “What gave rise to the antisocial behavior? How do we get to the root of the problem? Maybe evidence-based practices, like cognitive behavior therapies, will show that prison is but one of the methods of behavioral modification for the re-offender.”