Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – A New Approach to Dealing with Juvenile Offenders

This blog has previously addressed the fact that the statistics describing the state of the juvenile justice system in this country are alarming.  About 53,000 juveniles are incarcerated on any given day in the United States.  Many jurisdictions report recidivism rates exceeding 50% during a one to three year period.  We have also learned that education is closely linked to criminal behavior.  Incarcerated juveniles are 13% less likely to complete high school, and 22% more likely to be incarcerated as adults.  At least one study estimates that 200,000 young offenders are tried sentenced, and/or incarcerated as adults each year, and juveniles in the adult system are between 34% and 77% more likely to be re-arrested.

We have also recognized that juvenile involvement with the criminal justice system stems, at least in part, from the fact that a young person’s brain is underdeveloped relative to that of an adult.  A series of United States Supreme Court decisions delivered over the last few years found that this leads young offenders to make poor decisions that result in criminal conduct.  It also prevents juveniles from fully appreciating the consequences of their conduct.

None of this is new.  In fact, we have known about all of these facts and issues for some time.  However, a new approach to dealing with juvenile crime, as well as kids who are at risk for becoming criminally involved, has already shown considerable promise.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, sometimes referred to as Cognitive Self Change, is a new way of molding how juveniles make decisions and control their behavior.  The basic premise is fairly simple.  The way juveniles think about particular circumstances shape their decision-making process.  Negative thoughts result in negative behavior, while positive thinking brings a positive outcome.  This may be illustrated by the relatively simple example of an adult who has to make a presentation before a large group of people.  If they enter the presentation saying to themselves that they are going to perform poorly, they probably will.  Their chances of success will increase if they believe in their personal ability to succeed.

CBT/CSC is not new.  It has a long track record with psychologists for treating various disorders.  Its application in the juvenile justice system may be illustrated with a common pattern.  Say a young person grows up in a family environment riddled with violence, abuse and no respect for authority.  Or, there may be an adult in the household who was incarcerated and, upon returning home, teaches younger family members that it is important to be the most feared inmate in prison, or that the worst possible thing anyone can do is provide information to law enforcement about another criminal.  Young adults exposed to such environments and thinking come to view it as automatic, and a normal part of life.  Negative thinking – and the resulting behavior – ultimately gets passed down from one generation to the next.  CBT/CSC tries to break the cycle by training youthful offenders and at-risk juveniles to think about these negative influences differently through improved impulse management, critical and moral reasoning, and better problem solving and social skills.  From this perspective, simply incarcerating juveniles does little more than reinforce the behaviors that led to criminal activity, whereas CBT/CSC teaches the skills juveniles need to alter their own behavior.

Where CBT/CSC programs exist, they have already been found to reduce juvenile crime by as much as 79.2%, and recidivism by 44%.  These numbers, which are obviously impressive, are resulting in the introduction of CBT/CSC programs in prisons, jails and schools across the country.  One program participant was quoted as saying that “the story of [his] past does not need to be the story of [his] future.”

We know the statistics are horrendous.  We also have at least some ideas as to why kids become criminally involved.  We now have new programs that have proven themselves with positive results.  We need more CBT/CSC programs, particularly in juvenile detention facilities and inner-city schools with at-risk students.

James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney with offices in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  Mr. Friedman represents juveniles with criminal charges in courts throughout New Jersey and New York City.



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