Cognitive Behavioral Intervention

For many decades there has been a shift in correctional philosophies, in revolving door fashion, from a punishment-based model to a treatment-based approach for offenders. In the 1970’s, criminal justice practitioners and policy makers were repeatedly informed that offender rehabilitation was a failure and researchers such as Martinson proclaimed, “nothing works” (Martinson 1974).  The trend then was to incarcerate offenders with the idea that the public would be safe if these types of people were off the streets.  However studies have shown that incarceration is not the key to reducing recidivism and keeping the public safe.  Based on this empirical evidence, Martinson and other researchers eventually recanted his stance that incarceration was the only viable option to protect the public and the idea of rehabilitation took firm hold, particularly in the United States, for variety of socio-political reasons (Cullen and Gendreau 1989).

As agencies began to see an increased demand on maintaining offenders in jails and prisons, along with clarity that incarceration does not decrease recidivism (Beck & Shipley 1983), the criminal justice system started to focus on community supervision and probation when ever feasible.  In the late 1980’s, with a shift towards rehabilitation, a number of Probation Officers in Minnesota were encouraged to be trained to facilitate cognitive behavioral intervention classes to offenders.  Despite the ideology of “nothing works” in the 1970’s, numerous research studies in the area of correctional programming have identified Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions (CBI) programming as having the most promising results in changing offender thinking and behavior. CBI, both skills and restructuring programs, are designed for offenders who have learned antisocial values and beliefs, often demonstrated through harmful behaviors.  These interventions focus on changing thinking and beliefs and enhancing the competencies of offender’s in order to provide them with the necessary skills to adopt a more pro-social lifestyle. For some offenders, it is necessary to correct thinking errors, teach new skills, and enhance the development of concern or empathy for others.  The goal of most CBI programs is to increase offenders’ thinking skills and create a change in beliefs and attitudes, which in return should decrease the costs of incarceration and recidivism within the community that provides CBI programming.

These theories have received empirical support as the vast majority of research indicates that human service-based interventions reduce recidivism and punishment does not (Andrews & Bonta 1994).  Recently, synthesized findings based on over 500 hundred studies spanning 50 years, indicate that any kind of human service based treatment reduced recidivism on average about 10 percent (Andrews & Bonta 1998).    In Washington County, Minnesota, the recidivism rate for adult male offenders completing the Reasoning and Rehabilitation (R&R) program between 2000 and 2003 was 22 percent, compared to a 69.5 re-offense rate for untreated high/intensive offenders.  Furthermore, according to Ross & Fabiano, developers of the R&R program, their studies yielded a re-offense rate of only 18 percent after nine months of completing the R&R program (Andrews & Bonta 1998).

The major outcomes reported by those who have successfully implemented CBI programs are (Palmer 1993):

1) Reduction in offender recidivism;

2) Enhanced public safety;

3) Increase in staff morale and personal safety at work; and

4) Decrease in offender noncompliance with community supervision and reductions in the frequency of institutional misconducts.

Implementation generally refers to those key components that are essential to successfully sustain a program and assure its success.  Factors which are critical to successful correctional program implementation include utilizing a needs assessment tool, providing effective treatment interventions, using specialized trained staff, establishing an outcomes evaluation process, and implementing a budget.

To ensure implementation of an effective CBI program, agencies must utilize an effective risk/need assessment tool.  The ‘risk principle’ suggests that higher levels of service should be allocated to the higher risk cases.  Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that higher-risk cases respond better to CBI programs than do lower risk cases; more intensive supervision actually increases recidivism with lower-risk cases (Andrews & Bonta 1998). Research demonstrates that focusing on dynamic risk factors can lead to sharp reductions in future offense, and that these factors are responsive to treatment (Gendreau 1996).   It is thought that low risk-offenders will most likely do well with or without CBI programming and that if we are to derive maximum benefit from CBI program endeavors, then the rate of return will be greater for high-risk offenders (Milkman & Wanberg 1998). The best-established risk factors may be assigned to a major set and a minor set of contributors, according to the magnitude of their correlation with criminal behavior (Andrews & Bonta 1994).  Listed in order of significance, the major set includes:

1) Anti-social/pro-criminal attitudes, values, beliefs, and cognitive-emotional states (i.e. person cognitive supports of crime).

2) Pro-criminal associates and isolation from anti-criminal others (i.e. interpersonal supports of crime).

3) Temperamental and personality factors conducive to criminal activity (including impulsivity, restless aggressive energy, egocentrism, below average verbal intelligence, and weak problem solving/self regulation skills).

4) A history of antisocial behavior evident at an early age, in a variety of settings.

5) Familial factors that include criminality and a variety of psychological problems in the family of origin; including low levels of affections, caring and cohesiveness, poor parental supervision, and outright neglect and abuse.

6) Low levels of personal, educational, vocational, or financial achievement and, in particular, an unstable history of employment.

The minor set of risk/need factors include the following; (1) Lower class origins as assessed by adverse neighborhood conditions and indices of parental education/occupation/income; (2) Personal distress; and (3) Biological/neuropsychological indicators (Andrews & Bonta 1994).

By using an effective risk/needs assessment tool, agencies will then be able to place appropriate high/intensive risk offenders into programs that should decrease recidivism rates and create a safer community.  One of the effective risk/needs assessment tool for adult offenders that has been utilized over the years in Corrections is called the ‘Level of Service Inventory-Revised’ (LSI-R).  The LSI-R is a comprehensive risk/needs assessment tool that was designed to guide officers in the matching of services based on the principles of effective correctional interventions.  It is a 54-item checklist that incorporates social learning theory, officer judgment, and empirical research (Gendreau 1996).

The LSI-R has been shown to be a reliable tool for identifying treatment targets and monitoring offender risk, making probation/supervision decisions, for making decisions regarding placement into halfway houses, for deciding appropriate security-level classification within institutions, and for assessing the likelihood of recidivism.

Based on the LSI-R score of an offender, they will be classified as “low”, “medium”, “high”, or “intensive” risk.  Offenders that are considered “high” (25-32 points) or “intensive” (33-54 points) should be referred to complete a CBI program.  These are the individuals that will benefit from treatment and/or cognitive behavioral intervention programs, which in return will reduce the likelihood of recidivism and provide a safer community.

There are hundreds of CBI programs for correctional clients.  Many target a very specific population and meet particular programming needs.  There is not a single program (or even several programs) that will fit all needs.  There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to CBI programming.  According to correctional programming researcher Peter Kratcoski (1994:5) “no individual type of treatment has proved to be a panacea for reducing criminal activity.”  Virtually all offender behavioral programs are based on the principles of operant conditioning.  At the core of operant conditioning is the idea of reinforcement, which is referred to as the strengthening, or increasing of a behavior so that it will continue to be performed in the future. In contrast, punishment, which is used much less frequently by behavioral therapists, attempts to weaken or suppress behavior by providing unpleasant or harmful consequences (Gendreau 1996).

According to Gendreau, a well-designed program will have two of the three in its program:  (1) Token economies- basically rewarding offenders by giving them points if they do a good job in group; (2) Modeling- having the offender observe a facilitator or another person demonstrate a skill/tool before they demonstrate themselves for the group; and (3) cognitive behavioral intervention- engaging offenders with the goal of changing offender thinking and beliefs and enhancing their competencies, in order to provide them with the necessary skills to live a more pro-social life.

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory hypothesizes that behavior is generally learned through observation and modeling by others (Hollin 1990).  Bandura argues that there are three primary aspects to motivating individuals, including external reinforcement, curious reinforcement, and self-reinforcement.   Curious reinforcement occurs when a person observes how another person’s behaviors are reinforced or punished.  Self-reinforcement relates to a persons sense of pride and achievement, and may motivate an individual to act in the same way in a future situation.  External reinforcement generally relates to the punishment or rewards that one receives as a result of certain behaviors (Hollin 1990).  Recent articles in probation journals have made mention concerning types of effective correctional treatment.  “Those programs that are most successful include a strong behavioral and cognitive skills development component” (Rhine 1998:26).

Agencies must select a program that will be responsive to the needs of the offender population they are trying to service.  The program should target offender change in the criminogenic risk areas that have a major influence on the likelihood of criminal behavior.  In the past, agencies were in the habit of picking the cheapest and quickest program to demonstrate to stakeholders that they were on board with CBI programming.  Once again, this impulsive decision by agencies was shown to be unsuccessful because it did not fit the needs of the agencies’ offender population.  As noted, there is not one program that should be utilized for the vast majority of offender populations.  There are specific programs for specific offender populations.  For example, the following are CBI programs that were endorsed by the Minnesota Cognitive Network in 2003.  These programs were found to be effective because they targeted a certain population; they fit the cognitive behavioral model and were extensive in length (over 60 hours in duration). Teaching techniques with such programs include, but are not limited lectures, role playing skills, in and out of classroom homework assignments, and group presentations.

“Reasoning and Rehabilitation” (R&R) is  researched-based program was developed through correctional practitioners and researchers in Canada.  R&R is a 75-hour program, which teaches high-risk adult male offenders skills in the areas of problem solving, negotiation, social skills, creative thinking, critical reasoning, management of emotions, along with goal setting and planning.

This writer has taught the R&R program to high risk adult males for the past four years and has also been exposed the teaching of symbolic interaction theory.  The exposure to symbolic interaction theory has allowed me to tie together the R&R program and some of the ideas of this theory.  G.H. Mead symbolic interaction theory is based on the links between the ‘mind’, the ‘self’ and ‘society’ (Ritzer, 2004).  He notes that for an individual to have a mind and a self, he or she must first immerse into society because this is where social interaction occurs (in this case the society is the four month class).  Mead identify simple gestures, which this writer can see as the cause for their criminal behavior at times, because they are acting on instinct from a particular stimulus.  Mead goes beyond simple gestures and identifies ‘significant symbols’.  This occurs when individuals start to use and manipulate symbols, which creates the ideology of shared specific meanings (Ritzer, 2004).  To have a shared specific meaning with one another individual or individuals, the parties need to possess the same meaning for a particular object.  If they have a shared understanding, then those parties are able to interact and communicate effectively.  However, if people have different beliefs or meanings for a particular symbol, they do not share the symbolic meaning.

The motto of the R&R course is “learn ways to decrease your problems and not increase your problem”. In the R&R course, individuals enter the class with their own meaning of specific symbols.  Their meanings, at times, create conflicts in their lives because their meanings are not held by the majority of society.  Some offenders think it is acceptable to beat someone up that has cussed him out, steal something because they are homeless, or use drugs because they have had a stressful life.   The goals of this class to assist these offenders identify new ways of looking at symbols in society to decrease their problems.  Meanings are constantly being constructed and shared through the process of interaction, and in this program through classroom exercises.  People begin to understand the meaning through the process of thinking.  Only through the social process are they able to have an internalized conversation, which as a result allows them to think and possess a mind.  According to Mead, the mind makes it possible to understand the world in abstract constructs, groups, experiences in a larger concept.  By considering the consequence choice and the consequences, these offenders are allowed to choose a wise course of action without even knowing at times that they are doing it.

The ‘self’ has two parts the “I” and the ‘me”, this allows us to be a complete actor in society.  The “I” is when people unconsciously act in the moment by spontaneity, creativity, and/or innovation (Ritzer, 2004).  The “I” allows people to distinguish themselves from one another by this inborn impulse they possess, but individuals are never really aware of the “I” until after an action on their part surprises them (i.e. an offender hauls off and hit his girlfriend during a verbal altercation).

The other half of ‘self’ is the “me”.  People are aware of the “me”, unlike the “I” and this creates individual responsibility (Ritzer, 2004).  This occurs when people mentally take themselves beyond the experience, so they can evaluate and play out a number of scenarios to make sense out of the experience.  By distancing themselves, people are able to put themselves in the shoes of others and imagine how their actions appear to others.  Many people have an idea of who they are, although until they take themselves away from their own thoughts, they can then and only then have a clearer perception of others.  This is why Mead says that the self is created only after people have had societal experiences.  The ‘me’ is not inborn but socially acquired.

The R&R class focuses on the “me”.  Offenders are given the opportunity to role play pro-social ways of communication and problem solving.  Offenders are taught to put themselves in the victims ‘shoes’ or try and look at issues in the other person viewpoint and they are allowed to voice their views and have other in the class give them feedback regarding those views.  When offenders are practicing and reinforcing pro-social behaviors, interacting with other classmates, individuals start to become aware (mind) of different ways to handle problem situations that will not increase their problems but decrease their problems.

The “I” and the “me” are not in sequential order, but go back and forth between one another.  It is comparable to a fast paced game, where at times one just reacts and there are times when there is time to be reflexive.  The R&R class assist offender to become more reflective and to realize that when they take time they save time, when they save time they won’t serve time.

When offenders complete the R&R class, they are educated on a number of skills/tools that allow them to have a better understanding of the significant symbols society shares as a whole (i.e. problem solving skills, job training skills, effective means of communication, and being aware of people’s nonverbals.) Additionally, they are taught a number of different ways to manage their emotions.  If one does not learn certain techniques to manage their true emotions, then they are considered anti-social or uneducated and attached to those labels are consequences.   When offenders are taught anger triggers, de-escalation techniques, effective communication skills are they able to harness their emotions and prescribe to society’s rules of how one should act in a given situation.

Lastly, it is difficult for offender’s to stay with the new role they acquire through the R&R program. Society pressures offenders to fall back into their old roles, which for most is criminal behavior and anti-social attitudes and beliefs.  It is essential to have follow up meetings with the graduates of the program to reinforce what they were taught and also have staff reinforce the skills and tools of the class in future meetings with the offender to assist the offender from going directly back to their old role in society.


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Palmer, T. (1993, November).  “Programmatic and Non-Programmatic Aspects of Successful Intervention.”  Philadelphia, PA:  Paper prepared for the international association of the Residential and Community Alternatives, “What works in Community Corrections: A consensus Conference.”

Rhine, Edward E. (1998).  “Probation and Parole Supervision:  Time for a New Narrative.”           Perspectives. American Probation and Parole Association.  Winter; 1998:26-28.

Ritzer, George (2004).  Sociological Theory. New York, New York:  McGraw Hill Publishing.

Ross, Robert R., & Fabiano, E., (1986).  Reasoning and Rehabilitation: A Handbook for    Teaching Cognitive Skills. Ottawa, Ontario, T3 Associates Training & Consulting,        Inc.

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