Reducing Recidivism: Helping Offenders Avoid Returning to Prison

For the past four years I have worked with a research team on a study that has focused on reducing prisoner recidivism among juveniles and adults.  Our program, called RealVictory, consists of six 90-minute training sessions and a cell-phone coach program.  We give them a cell phone and they agree to answer two automated calls each day at times they select. Each phone call contains a prime question, such as “Are you following all of the rules of your probation?” along with three or four other questions that are randomly selected from a list they have created.

The final training session explains on the value of goal setting and we have them identify a dozen goals that they want to achieve.  We also arrange for them to receive pre-recorded phone-mail messages from significant others who congratulate them when they are succeeding and encourage them when they are failing.

Our program has been very successful and we recently published an article describing its results in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.  In an experiment that compared 70 randomly assigned youth to treatment or control groups, our program reduced the probability of rearrest by half and increased the median days to rearrest from 106 to 278 days.  An independent cost-benefit analysis of our program estimated that it saved the state about $46,000 for each youth we trained.

Our six training sessions focus on teaching participants a very simple model that we call the Control Model.  This model assumes that all human behavior is motivated by a desire to satisfy one of four basic needs: the need to live (survive), the need to love and be loved, the need to feel important, and the need to experience variety. All of us have a unique “belief window” through which we view the world, and this window contains a set of principles that form our core expectations: “If I do X, then Y will happen.” These beliefs are the forces that determine our behavior. During the training, participants examine their behaviors and assess the consequences of their actions: “Are the results of your behavior satisfying your needs?”  If not, they are asked to identify which incorrect beliefs may be causing their problems.

The Control Model appeals to our audience and helps them examine the consequences of their behavior because they think everyone has basic needs that deserve to be fulfilled.  This model is intended to provide a value-neutral framework for examining one’s beliefs and adjusting one’s behaviors to achieve desired results.

This nonjudgmental approach allows participants to discover for themselves why they need to change their behavior without feeling that they are being “preached to.” However, this training does not endorse a relativistic philosophy because the training focuses on helping participants assess the natural consequences of their actions. Group discussions of the natural consequences of one’s behavior, especially when it injures others, are extremely useful in helping participants decide to change.

Our research has taught us that people can make significant and lasting change; but they have to want to change and the source of the change must come from within. Their strong desire needs to be accompanied with frequent encouragement and immediate feedback.  We have also learned from our research that alcohol and drugs appear to be the greatest contributors to crime – a topic for next time.  $

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