Changing the Criminal Mind

By Verdeyen, Vicki | Corrections Today, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Changing the Criminal Mind


Verdeyen, Vicki, Corrections Today


The offender who will change will challenge his or her old beliefs and learn new thinking processes that will lead to effective and pro-social behavior.

Understanding the Criminal Mind

From the crime scene investigator to the correctional officer to the community treatment provider, the understanding of criminal behavior, specifically how offenders think, is critical to performing effectively in the criminal justice field. Fortunately, the workings of the criminal mind are better known and understood today than ever before in the history of psychology, sociology and criminology. We have excellent diagnostic tools that help us describe and even predict criminal behavior.

Criminals maintain a complex belief system that supports patterns of anti-social behaviors, such as lying, manipulating, and violating rules and laws. They have operated according to this belief system for many years and it is important to appreciate that offenders are convinced that their belief system is correct. Articulate criminals can build a strong case to rationalize their behavior because of the complete belief in their value system. Those who have worked with offenders know it is a relatively common experience to find oneself precariously close to agreeing with offenders' rationale for their illegal behavior. While all individuals act according to their belief system, the offender acts according to an anti-social belief system.

The challenge for corrections professionals is to promote positive change in offenders during their incarceration. Specifically, this means changing the offenders' anti-social belief system to a pro-social belief system, thereby changing the criminal mind. As Federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) psychologist Glenn Walters described, the criminal has constructed a belief system that serves to justify and support his criminal actions. Specific interventions, such as individual and group therapy, help the offender learn the nature of his self-defeating thoughts and that any short-term gain of pleasure, power or money has been lost during the long-term cost of confinement.

According to Walters, if we are to understand criminal behavior, we must understand the eight primary patterns of thinking that typify and enable the lifestyle criminal to operate. These eight patterns include: mollification (rationalization); the cutting off of feelings - such as anxieties and fears - which would deter criminal behavior; a sense of entitlement; the need for power over others; sentimentality, or doing good for others just to make himself look good for self-serving reasons; superoptimism, or the belief that he can get away with his criminal behavior; cognitive indolence, or failure to objectively examine himself and take responsibility; and discontinuity, or failing to follow through on commitments. The offender who will change will challenge his or her old beliefs and learn new thinking processes that will lead to effective and pro-social behavior.

Changing Criminal Behavior

One of the practical benefits for distilling criminal behavior to a few, easily understood patterns of thinking is that it makes changing criminal behavior less overwhelming. Solving the problems of crime and delinquency requires complex responses and coordinated efforts from many components of society. Reducing crime by changing the anti-social individual into a pro-social individual, one offender at a time, is certainly a possibility we can embrace.

Given that offenders commit rule violations and even crimes while incarcerated, it is clear that containing offenders usually is not enough to change the underlying criminal thinking and behavior. The more effective strategy is to offer programs during the time offenders are incarcerated. Paul Gendreau, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, and Claire Goggins, of the Community Mental Health Services in New Brunswick, produced results from their meta-analyses that demonstrated the effectiveness of treatment in changing criminal behavior. …

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