Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: An Evidence-Based Intervention for Offenders

By Clark, Patrick M. | Corrections Today, February-March 2011 | Go to article overview

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: An Evidence-Based Intervention for Offenders


Clark, Patrick M., Corrections Today


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) reduces recidivism among both juvenile and adult offenders. The CBT approach represents the view that most people can become aware of their own thoughts and behaviors, and can change them for the better. A person's thoughts, which may stem from his or her experiences, often influence and trigger a person's behavior. Unfortunately, as a person develops, his or her thoughts may sometimes become distorted and fail to reflect reality accurately. Most experienced corrections professionals recognize the characteristics of such distorted thinking among criminal offenders--distorted thinking that an offender can change through CBT.

In a recent review and analysis of research on offender programs, Mark Lipsey of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University examined the effectiveness of various approaches to intervention with young offenders. The systematic metaanalysis review examined results from 548 studies conducted from 1958 to 2002 including evaluations of intervention policies, practices and programs. Lipsey grouped evaluation studies into seven categories:

* Surveillance;

* Deterrence;

* Discipline;

* Restorative programs;

* Counseling;

* Skill building; and

* Multiple coordinated services.

When the effects of these interventions were combined into categories and compared in meta-analysis, those based on punishment and deterrence appeared to increase criminal recidivism (most often equated with re-arrest within 12 months after intervention); whereas therapeutic approaches based on counseling, skill building and multiple services had the greatest impact in reducing further criminal behavior (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Effectiveness of Interventions With Criminal Offenders

Discipline            -8%
Deterrence            -2%
Surveillance           6%
Restorative Programs  10%
Skill Building        12%
Multiple Services     12%
Counseling            13%

Note: Table made from bar graph

Lipsey also examined the effectiveness of various therapeutic interventions by comparing different counseling and skill-building approaches. Results showed that cognitive-behavioral skill-building approaches are more effective in reducing further criminal behavior than other therapeutic interventions. In a separate systematic review, Nana Landenberger and Lipsey showed that programs based on cognitive-behavioral therapy are effective with juvenile and adult criminal offenders in various criminal justice settings including prison, community residential, probation and parole. Studies published from 1965 through 2005 were examined according to particular research criteria. A total of 58 studies were included in their review and analysis. Results showed CBT to be consistently associated with reduced recidivism even among offenders at highest risk of recidivism.

Criminal Offenders and the Cognitive Perspective

From the cognitive perspective, experiences, beliefs, attitudes and values affect the way people think and how they view problems. These views may be a result of emotional and behavioral systems that distort the way a person views reality, interacts with other people, and experience everyday life. This in turn can contribute to unrealistic, arbitrary or crooked inferences and distortions in thinking and behavior.

Offenders often exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

* Thought patterns that are immature or developmentally arrested;

* Shortfalls in problem-solving and decision-making;

* Inability to consider the effects of their behavior;

* Thoughts involving egocentric views of self, and a negative belief or lack of trust in other people;

* Distorted thoughts that hamper their ability to reason and accept blame for wrongdoing;

* Mistaken belief of entitlement, which makes them unable to delay gratification, confuse wants and needs, and disrespect others;

* Tendency to act on impulse;

* Lack of self-control and empathy;

* Inability to manage feelings of anger; and

* Use of force and violence as a means to achieve their goals. …

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