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Counseling in the Criminal Justice System

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Counseling in the Criminal Justice System: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

Following the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines

Clayton Smith

Harding University


        A huge problem in the U.S. today is the number of people who are incarcerated, are released, and then become incarcerated again. This is called recidivism. In the last 10 years, the number of people who are incarcerated has reached two million, approximately one in every 110 people, and only seven percent of those incarcerated are women. A study found that 56 percent of those released from prison are rearrested within the first year, 67 percent within three years, and 76 percent after five years (Durose, 2014).  Another major problem in corrections is overcrowding. At the end of 2010, United States state and federal correctional facilities housed over 1.6 million inmates. At least seven states are currently at 25% over capacity with the highest being Alabama at 196% and closely followed by Illinois at 144% above maximum capacity. Nineteen states in total are operating above maximum capacity. In 2007, California declared a "state of emergency" regarding overcrowded prisons. Studies have shown that the majority of prison sentences are handed to two types of offenders: drug offenders and recidivists. So, these two problems are related through the problem of recidivism. If we can combat recidivism first, then there will be less of a burden on the US correctional system. There have been many attempts to combat recidivism and overcrowding with little success, however there are some methods of counseling that have had a positive impact on recidivism. The technique that seems to have the most success is the cognitive behavioral approach.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a combination of behavioral therapy, which focuses on the outward actions of the person, and cognitive therapy, which focuses on the internal thought of the person. CBT attempts to get people to acknowledge their thoughts and behaviors and consciously make positive changes to them. It is one of the most researched form of psychotherapy with over 325 published studies since 1986. The growth in interest CBT is due to the adaptation for a wider range of illnesses and disorders, and other problems.

        CBT has been shown to be effective in many types of both juvenile and adult offenders, such as violent offenders and drug offenders (Lipsey, 2009). However, it has shown to be more effective in groups with either a mix of juveniles and adult or only juveniles as opposed to a group with all adults (Feucht, 2016).  Moderate and high risk adult offenders are often the target of CBT interventions. “Risk” refers to the probability that an individual will reoffend. For instance, a low-risk offender has a low probability of reoffending, whereas moderate and high risk offenders have higher probabilities of reoffending (Lowenkamp and Latessa, 2004). CBT programs may target specific risk factors (such as antisocial attitudes or substance abuse problems) that place offenders at higher risks of recidivating. Research has shown that programs based on retribution and deterrence had higher recidivism rates than those based on therapeutic approaches based on counseling and skill-building (Lipsey, 2009).

        CBT can help repair distorted thinking that offenders usually have. Changing the offender’s thinking and can effectively change that person’s behavior for the better. Some characteristics of distorted thinking are: immature thoughts, poor decision making and problem solving, not being able to think through to the consequences of one’s actions, a lack of trust in other people, an inability to accept blame for wrongdoing, a mistaken belief of entitlement, an inability to control feelings of anger, and the use of force to achieve their goals (Yochelson, 1976). Criminal thinking is often tied to a “victim stance.” They see themselves as unfairly cast out or ostracized from the community while failing to see how their antisocial behavior may have been a factor in their problems. (Lipsey, 2007) Therapy can help an offender change these thoughts, actions, and beliefs.

High-risk behavior does not change the effectiveness of the therapy. Some of the greatest changes were among the most serious offenders, and the therapy is more helpful when paired with other programs, such as employment and education and training (Landenberger, 2005). these programs are usually delivered by training professionals or paraprofessionals. Non-therapist group leaders generally receive 40 hours or more of specialized training to be able to facilitate the program effectively. Certain characteristics of CBT counselors are important to the therapy process. For example, an essential aspect of CBT is that counselors and clients establish a positive rapport; therefore, counselors need to show support, honesty, sensitivity, and acceptance (Clark, 2010).

There are six cognitive behavioral programs that are used most frequently in the U.S.: Aggression Replacement Training® (ART®), Criminal Conduct and Substance Abuse Treatment: Strategies for Self-Improvement and Change (SSC), Moral Reconation Therapy® (MRT®), Reasoning and Rehabilitation (R&R and R&R2), Relapse Prevention Therapy (RPT), and Thinking for a Change (T4C). Interestingly, although all these programs were effective, no single program was more effective than another (Landenberger, 2005).

Each of these programs approach CBT a little differently, but they all use a set of techniques aimed at building cognitive skills in areas where offenders show deficits and repairing biased or distorted thinking. These programs are cognitive skills training, anger management, and various supplementary components.

Cognitive skills training teaches such skills as interpersonal conflict resolution, abstract thinking, critical reasoning, perspective taking, thinking about cause and effect, long term planning, and goal setting. Usually role-play is involved as an effective way to train the offender to react positively to a situation that was once a cause for negative behavior, and in turn, phase out the negative reactions of the offender.

The goal of anger management training is to stop the automatic response of anger to various “triggering” situations. The key parts of most anger management programs are learning to substitute accurate interpretations for biased ones and to consider non-hostile explanations of others’ behavior.

Along with the primary emphases of cognitive behavioral programs, such as social skills training or assuming responsibility for their actions, these programs often add supplementary components such as social skills training, moral reasoning training, and relapse prevention. (Lipsey, 2007)

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