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Cognitive Behaviour

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In his articles, Porporino (1995, 1991) examines the viability of cognitive behaviour therapy as a correctional intervention. After summarizing cognitive behaviour therapy principles, he discusses strategies for implementation, and provides research data supporting its effectiveness, including post release outcomes on the Reasoning and Rehabilitation (R & R) program. Porporino’s conclusions are subsequently compared with other researcher’s opinions and research based empirical data.


Porporino criticises several programs he reviewed that claimed to be cognitive. In particular, he disregards motivational programs that lack empirical evidence of reduction of recidivism, and those programs that criticise forms of thinking without providing reasoning. Likewise, he dismisses programs that criticise current forms of thinking without providing reasoning, or adapted to corrections without adequate training or strategies for implementation. He is also critical of holistic programs that claim to address life skills, stating that they lack the systematic targeting of key factors that maintain criminal attitudes. Although in 1991, he advocated for a living skills program based on the success of the cognitive skills program. Furthermore, he dismisses cognitive programming models based on stages of morality, because they lack empirical evidence and he maintains they are not cognitive (Porporino, 1995, p.p. 2, 3, 18).

Why cognitive

Porporino maintains it is important to change ways of thinking to reduce recidivism, because risk factors that indicate propensity to offend can influence and maintain attitudes for continued offending. Moreover, correctional systems can inadvertently entrench the necessary attitudes and beliefs for criminality. On this basis, he advocates for the use of cognitive programs, to provide the skills to an offender to enable them to rationalize their behaviour in socially acceptable ways by correcting reasoning deficits. He praises the R & R program as being able to achieve this (Porporino, 1995, p.5, 6 7).

Porporino’s reliance on cognitive processes is supported by underlying theory, with some models being developed within behaviorial and social learning frameworks (Goldsmith et al., p. 75). Cognitive models can first be seen in Ellis’s Rational Behaviour Therapy, where he applied cognitive processes in an endeavour to change behaviour. Bandura, who based his work on social learning, also introduced the notion that individuals learn by modeling what they see others do and acquire skills by trying, through role-play situations, what has been shown to them (Glick, 2003). Bandura’s social cognition theory prescribes that to learn through modeling, individuals should have the ability to anticipate consequences of their behaviour. This ability includes cognitive processes such as thoughts, beliefs and perceptions (Goldsmith, 2003, p.75).


Whilst Porporino fails to detail evidence that supports or negates his opinions of the programs he dismisses, he provides a detailed evaluation of the R & R program. He reviewed data that measures changes before and after completion of the program, by evaluating its effects on attitudes, behaviour, and cognition. In doing so, he concludes that these evaluations have been positive, showing a change in the perspectives of participants in respect of social situations and being able to better appreciate other’s perceptions. Measures were achieved by participants completing questionnaires, and facilitator observations and interviews. These measures showed participant satisfaction, with 97% admitting they used the skills and that they are relevant to their lives. Improvements were also noted on self report impulsiveness scales, which are related to offending behaviour. These results were substantiated by facilitator observations. Attitudinal measures also showed that offenders made positive changes in pro-social thinking. Empirical data, based on post release follow ups showed that participants, although returned to prison on technical breaches, had fewer new convictions than the comparison group, suggesting that the treatment is effective (Porporino et al., p.p. 5, 6, 7).

Empirical evidence

Walters concurs with Porporino about the benefits of cognitive behaviour therapy, maintaining that when offenders change or challenge their beliefs, and learn new thinking processes, they will have improved pro-social behavior (Verdyen, 1999). This is validated with empirical evidence. For example, Platt et al (1986) showed cognitive training reduced recidivism, with lower rearrest rates (49% v 66%), with offences being of a less serious nature, and longer average arrest free periods (238 v 168 days). Moreover, a metaanalytic review by Izzo and Ross (1990) reported a ratio of 2.5 to 1 of success in respect of programs with and without cognitive elements in reducing recidivism (McGuire, 2001, p.224). Moreover, Gendreau maintains that the most successful programs are behaviorial ones that include a cognitive component that focuses on the attitudes, values and beliefs that support anti-social behaviour (Gendreau et al., 1991 in Thompson, 2003, p. 4). However, Ross and Fabiano (1985) found that evidence did not necessarily support the hypothesis of increased cognitive skills as reducing recidivism. Moreover, there is no conclusive evidence of the finding of cognitive skills deficits in client groups with behaviorial difficulties (McGuire, 2001, p.p. 222, 227).

Research regarding ‘what works’ has found that with over 400 models, no one model has been proven reliably better than any other one (Clark, 2001). Lambert (1992) and Hubble, et al. (1999) researched different treatments, and hypothesized that changes or beneficial effects of treatments resulted from similarities and common processes, rather than differences in the various models. These "factors" that raise effectiveness are generic to all effective treatment approaches (Clark, 2001). According to Duncan & Miller (2000) "Despite the fortunes spent on weekend workshops selling the latest fashion, the competition among the more than 250 therapeutic schools amounts to little more than the competition among aspirin, Advil, and Tylenol. All of them relieve pain and work better than no treatment at all. None stands head and shoulders above the rest" (p. 65) (in Clark, 2001). Furthermore, research by the American Psychological Association, revealed that 40% of success related to client factors, 15% to hope and expectancy, 30% relationship factors and only 15% to model and technique. One of the smallest contributors to change (15 percent) is model and technique (Clark, 2001).


Porporino praises the R & R program, because of the design in respect of ease of implementation by front line staff because of the tools it provides in its comprehensive manual. The structure of the program also ensures sequential skill development, building each new skill on ones previously learned, whilst putting the skills in context of the individual’s life. However, Porporino maintains that it is important to maintain the integrity of the program, which is why managerial support and supporting policies, as well as addressing process issues such as facilitator support, monitoring and feedback is required. Included in this aspect, is gaining support for the program by extensive consultation with line managers, and selecting appropriate staff and offenders that have the enthusiasm and commitment to overcome “bureaucratic, procedural and systematic obstacles” (Porporino et al., p.p. 1, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14).

The characteristics that Porporino mentions in respect of contributing to the success of the R & R program, have also warranted the attention of other researchers. Latessa, agrees with Porporino, in respect of appropriate managerial processes and facilitator structures, including trained staff, evaluation, review and modification being necessary for programs to be successful (Glick, 2003). Glick (2003) continues, by emphasising the importance of system issues in the effectiveness of a program, including supporting policies and formulating clear guidelines and expectations to ensure standardisation of treatment, program integrity as well as facilitating staff development. Andrews (1989) also notes that staff need to be trained and well resourced, as well as being optimistic and enthusiastic (Thompson, 2003, p. 5). Moreover, where the program is relevant to an individual, they are more responsive. It is therefore imperative that the methods of program delivery and the learning style of the offender coincide. This matching has been found in 80% of successful programs (Thompson, 2003, p. 4). However, whilst Porporino readily dismissed programs other than the R & R program as cognitive, there are numerous other programs that have the characteristics that Porporino describes as necessary for successful intervention, such as Thinkfirst (McGuire) and Targets for effective change (Nottingham Probation Service) (McGuire, 2001, p. 224, Thompson, 2003, p. 6). Both these programs are accompanied by a manual providing tools, worksheets and intervention strategies in respect of addressing criminogenic needs, are structured and have clear objectives (Thompson, 2003, p.p. 3, 5).

Maintaining program integrity, in that programs are delivered as intended, including monitoring and evaluation, is also noted as being important by other researchers (Thompson, 2003, p. 5). However, whilst the integrity of a program needs to be maintained, intervention needs to be a usable resource, and at times may need to be disseminated by reducing it to its essential elements, to enable it to be delivered by diverse facilitators, to different clients in diverse settings. Changing the design of a program, and how it is implemented, may also increase the acceptability of the program to participants and front line staff. (Duan et al.,). To be effective, agencies need to consider the cost effectiveness of programs (Aos et al., 2001).


Whilst the skills obtained through cognitive programming provides skills for pro-social adaptations, limitations of the program need to be acknowledged. The R & R program is group based, which has been criticised (Kazdin, 1988), because of the impact of the influence of deviant peers on each other (Porporino et al., p.8., McGuire, 2001, p.227). This is consistent with the contamination principle, which is based on differential association theory, and described by Trotter (1995p.164) as the impact peer group associations have on an individual. Research also indicates that offenders can be negatively influenced by their peers on correctional programs (Petersilla and Turner, 1990 in Trotter, 1995, p. 164). In a study of offenders placed on group sites, recidivism rates were 30-50% lower for offenders placed on individual sites (Trotter, 1995, p. 169). By analogy this could mean that individual program may be more effective than group programs.

Furthermore, services need to be provided that match the risk level of the offender, based on a risk assessment. When considering the contamination principle, low risk offenders may derive less benefit or even disadvantages in terms of offending. Responsivity factors need to be considered for selection in cognitive behaviour interventions, which includes matching client characteristics with facilitators (Andrew et al., 1998). This is one reason why R & R participants need to be carefully selected, and need appropriate levels of motivation to begin with. Other factors for consideration include insufficient research on the relationship between problem solving skills and criminality. Furthermore, changes in problem solving skills, do not necessarily equate to changes in behaviour (Olexa and Forman, 1984). Nonetheless, even when these correlations have been made, differences may still be apparent between test performance and problem solving in everyday life, which can make the hypothesized link between these variables doubtful. Furthermore, the relationship between problem solving skills and motivational factors is not clear, which can create obstacles in selecting participants for cognitive programs (McGuire, 2001, p.228).


Whilst Porporino is critical of programs other than the R & R Program as being cognitive, he has a sound empirical and theoretical basis for claiming cognitive behaviour therapy as important in respect of reducing recidivism. Cognitive processes have been proven as effective intervention by numerous studies, research reviews and empirical data. However, the evidence does not suggest that cognitive skills training are the only form of successful intervention in respect of reducing recidivism. Other factors, such as supporting policies, clear guidelines and goals, managerial processes and facilitator support also need to be considered to reduce bureaucratic constraints. As the American Psychological Association has demonstrated, the model used for intervention only accounts for 15% of success. Furthermore, care needs to be taken in selecting suitable offenders and appropriate facilitators to ensure success in the program. Whilst maintaining program integrity is important, it is also important that the program can be effectively utilized within an agency, which means, that without diverging from the essential elements of a program, an agency needs to be able to adapt the program in ways that will be more useful and cost effective for that agency. However, in doing so, it needs to be “left uncompromised” and needs to be “intelligently managed and supported in the implementation” (Porporino, 1995, p.13). It is also clear that future research is required in respect of the links between criminogenic factors, motivation, problem solving abilities and the effectiveness of cognitive programming.

Aos, S., Phipps, P., Barnoski, R., Lieb, R (2001), The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs to Reduce Crime, Washington State Institute for Public Policy, Washington, available at: http//

Andrews DA (1989) ‘Recidivism is predictable and can be influenced: Using risk assessments to reduce recidivism’, Forum on Correctional Research, 1 (2), pp 11-18 in Thompson, J (ed.) (2003) Targets for Effective Change, Nottingham Probation Service, Nottingham, UK.

Andrews, DA., Bonta, J., (1998) The Psychology of Criminal Conduct: 2nd Edition, Anderson Publishing, Cincinatti.

Anonowicz and Ross (1994) ‘Essential Components of successful rehabilitation programs for offender’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 38 (2) in Thompson, 2003.

Clark, M., (Jun 2001) ‘InfluencingPositive Behavior Change: Increasing the Therapeutic Approach of Juvenile Courts’, Federal Probation, 00149128, Vol. 65, Issue 1.

Duan, N., Rotheram-Borus, MJ., Development and Dissemination of Successful Behavioral Prevention Intervention: Safety, Innovation, Essential Ingredients, Robustness and Marketability. Available: http//depts. Washington. Edu/swprc/translation/ Rotheram.html

Dowden, C., Andrews, DA., (1999) ‘What works in young offender treatment: A meta-analysis, Forum on Corrections Research, 11 (2), pp 21-24.

Gendreau,P., Andrews, DA (1991) ‘Tertiary Prevention: What the meta analysis of the offender treatment literature tells us about ‘What works’, Canadian Journal of Criminology, 32, pp 173-184. in Thompson, 2003, p. 4.

Glick, B., (Feb 2003) Cognitive Programs: Coming of Age in Corrections , Corrections Today, 01902563,, Vol. 65, Issue 1.

Goldsmith, A., Israel, M., Daly, K., (2003) Crime and Jsutice: An Australian Textbook in Criminology: 2nd Edition, Lawbook Co, Australia.

Jones, J., (Feb 2003) Probation And Parole: The Savior of Corrections, Corrections Today, Feb2003, Vol. 65 Issue 1, p34, 3p; (AN 10296963).

McGuire, J (2001) What is problem solving? A review of theory, research and applications, University of Liverpool, UK Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 11, 210–235, © Whurr Publishers Ltd.

Porporino, F., Fabiano, EA., & Robinson, D. (1991). Focusing on successful reintegration: cognitive skills training for offender. Scandinavian Criminal Law Review, pp. 1-10. Porporino, F. (1995). Intervention in corrections: is “cognitive” programming an answer or just a passing fashion? Proceedings of the 125th ACA Congress of Corrections, Cincinnati, USA., pp.1-15.

Thompson, J (ed.) (2003) Targets for Effective Change, Nottingham Probation Service, Nottingham, UK.

Trotter, C., (1995) ‘Contamination theory and unpaid community work’, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 28, pp 163-176.

Verdeyen, V., (Feb99) Changing the Criminal Mind, Corrections Today, 01902563, , Vol. 61, Issue 1.…...

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