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How VADOC reduced recidivism using the Cognitive Community Model
A well-designed and implemented multi-faceted approach to offender reentry is significantly lowering recidivism rates
By Dudley Bush, contributor to In Public Safety
For the past two years, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) recorded the lowest rate of offender recidivism among 45 states that produce three-year recidivism rates for felons at 23.4 and 22.4 percent. This trend is not an anomaly, but rather the result of a well-designed and implemented multi-faceted approach to offender reentry. A central factor in these results is the implementation of a reentry modality called the Cognitive Community model.
Origins of the Cognitive Community Model
During the 1990s, correctional agencies were having great success in reducing offender recidivism using two competing reentry modalities: the Therapeutic Community model and the Cognitive Restructuring model. These two modalities would eventually become the foundation of the Cognitive Community Model.
Therapeutic Community Model
The Therapeutic Community (TC) model focuses on using behavior-shaping methods in a community milieu setting to role model pro-social behavior. It involves verbally confronting anti-social behaviors and affirming pro-social behaviors. By confronting offender behavior that is antithetical to core values (called “right living”) and positively reinforcing behavior that supports the values of right living, offenders make gradual change towards pro-social behavior.
Using the TC model, change begins with offenders “acting as if” and complying with behavioral norms even if it feels uncomfortable. Using this strategy, the new behavior gradually becomes habitual and automatic. In the final stages of the TC model, the offender begins to share a deeper understanding and appreciation for the new behaviors and values. Researchers and proponents of the TC model – Harry Wexler, James Inciardi and Thomas De Leon – cited its success, especially when the in-custody treatment period was followed by post-release transitional support.
Cognitive Restructuring Model
In direct contrast to the TC model, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and specifically the Cognitive Restructuring model focuses on changing offender behavior by changing their thinking, rather than the other way around. CBT teaches offenders to carefully monitor their thinking processes, particularly thinking that leads them to undesirable outcomes. With practice, offenders are taught to identify risky thoughts then engage in consequential thinking. They are introduced to a process of replacing the risky thinking with more acceptable thinking, and then practicing the behaviors that flow naturally from the new thinking.
This process leads to improved behavioral outcomes. It does not depend upon external confrontation as the TC model does, but instead relies on increased internal awareness and self-confrontation. The cognitive restructuring process is enhanced by the art of creating cognitive dissonance in the mind of the offender to assimilate directly conflicting ideas. CBT is a purely internal process and is not coerced in any way. Early researchers and proponents of the Cognitive Restructuring model – including Robert Ross, Elizabeth Fabiano and Paul Gendreau – reported that their work in Canada significantly changed offender criminal thinking, which led to reductions in recidivism.
Differences in approach
While both the TC and Cognitive Restructuring models were demonstrating success, the two models differed significantly in their core approach. At the core of the TC model, behavior-shaping (confrontation) and role modeling led to replacement of antisocial behaviors and the underlying thinking that accompanied the aberrant behavior. But at the core of the Cognitive Restructuring model, the focus is on how thinking drives behavior, so changing offender thinking naturally led to more pro-social behavior.
Throughout the 1990s, researchers and proponents of each model argued the subtleties of their positions and the purity of their approaches and worked in separate worlds. Despite their differences, both modalities had shown significant success in reducing offender recidivism. Was it possible to reconcile the differences and multiply the positive effects of both?
How the Cognitive Community Model came to be
In April 1997, the late Mark Gornik, then-Bureau Chief for Offender Programs at Idaho Department of Corrections and a frequent consultant for the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), believed that a synthesis of the two models might combine the power of each. Gornik was unsure how that could be accomplished, so he sought a small grant from NIC to bring together national practitioners of the two models to determine if a synthesis was possible.
During this time, I was a consultant and practitioner of the TC modality, working alongside Martin LaBarbera to develop a program for the Texas Department of Corrections. Gornik asked us to consult with him as experts on TC. Similarly, he asked Jack Bush and Brian Bilodeau, who were experts in cognitive restructuring, to lend their knowledge on implementing CBT in corrections.
The group met for several days to examine the strengths of both approaches and identify ways to integrate the approaches together. After a couple of days of contentious discussions, there was a breakthrough and the practitioners were able to visualize how each model could enhance the other. They named this new concept the Cognitive Community model.
Introducing the Cognitive Community Model in a prison setting
The group of practitioners speculated that if the tools of CBT were fully integrated within the structure of the TC model, they could create a synergy that would reduce resistance of offenders to treatment and also accelerate the process of change.
To integrate CBT, the new model had to maintain the freedom of offenders to express their thinking as it occurs, so long as they did not act upon those thoughts during the process. When thinking is exposed to self-scrutiny, it enables the offender to conduct an internal risk assessment of their thoughts and encourages consequential thinking, which is highly beneficial. However, there were practical problems with implementing the CBT approach in correctional settings. The prison environment is highly influential and continually exposes offenders to anti-social values, beliefs and behaviors that shape their own thinking and behavior. CBT training only occupies a few hours of an offender’s time each week, but the prison culture is present 24/7, therefore minimizing the impact of the intervention.
To resolve this problem, the practitioners turned to the Therapeutic Community model. The TC model operates in a therapeutic setting in which the community exerts a pro-social influence over its members. By fully integrating the self-awareness tools of CBT within the 24-hour/day living situation of the TC model, this new model was able to challenge offenders’ thinking and their behavior simultaneously. The combination of the two approaches in the Cognitive Community model meant that offenders could not hide in their thinking or from their behavior – both were exposed to the supportive community of peers, thus leading to greater self-correction.
The practitioners postulated that the combined approaches might, in fact, reduce the duration of programming to as little as six months, rather than the typical nine-to-12 months (or longer) of the existing programs. This was partially due to compressing the period of time it takes for offenders to overcome initial treatment resistance. By reducing an offender’s time in programming, the per-offender cost would also be reduced.
In June 1997, the group released a white paper for NIC outlining their concept for the creation of the Cognitive Community model. However, it was not until seven years later in March 2004 that there was an opportunity to pilot the new model in the VADOC. Read more about the process of implementation and the revolutionary success of the model in reducing recidivism in upcoming articles.
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About the Author
C. Dudley Bush, M.S. is a clinical psychologist and received his clinical training at the Menninger Foundation. He directed mental health and drug treatment programs in three states and has served as a consultant to criminal justice agencies since 1980. As Executive Director of Corrections Research Institute (CRI), a non-profit research and training organization based in Powhatan, VA, he delivered technical assistance and training to jail and prison, juvenile and community corrections agencies in 48 of the 50 states and provided more than 1,000 training events over the past two decades on behalf of federal and state agencies. He has extensive experience designing correctional treatment programs for adult and juvenile populations. Bush has published in Corrections Today and The Counselor and authored several national curriculum. He has written and managed several federal and state grants as CRI Executive Director. In June of 2003,Bush joined the Virginia Department of Corrections as Statewide S/A Programs Manager responsible for the oversight of many prison-based therapeutic community programs and transitional community reentry programs. In his current role as Administrator for Cognitive and Reentry Services, he is responsible for the oversight and clinical supervision of the numerous Virginia Department of Corrections drug treatment and Intensive Reentry Cognitive Community Programs. He is also responsible for agency oversight of several Federal grants and contract monitor for drug treatment services provided by vendors at several DOC sites. To reach him email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.