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  • Grace Schneider

How cognitive behavioral therapy reduces crime

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Almost 50% of inmates suffer from some form of mental health issue that becomes exacerbated when prison walls restrict their freedom. Ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to anxiety, inmates’ mental health can improve in prison if they receive proper care. Around 21% of the inmate population suffers from depression, and approximately 20% suffer from bipolar disorder or mania. Additionally, people who do not have a prior mental health diagnosis are likely to develop one because of their restricted freedom within the prison. The mental health of our prison population is a serious topic and can lead to dangerous situations for those in and outside of prison, but is it possible to reduce the high percentages? Cognitive behavioral therapy might be the answer.


Cognitive behavioral therapy is a treatment process that focuses on correcting false self-beliefs that can lead to negative moods and behaviors. The fundamental principle for cognitive behavioral therapy is that thoughts precede a mood; therefore, learning to have positive thoughts instead of negative ones improves a person’s mood, behavior and overall mental health. Studies have shown that cognitive therapy is an effective treatment for depression and is comparable in effectiveness to antidepressants and interpersonal or psychodynamic therapy.


This treatment can treat all forms of anxiety and depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help restructure distorted thinking and perception, which can improve a person’s behavior. “Characteristics of distorted thinking may include,” among others, “Immature or developmentally arrested thoughts; poor problem-solving and decision-making; an inability to consider the effects of one’s behavior ; an egocentric viewpoint with a negative view or lack of trust in other people, and tendency to act on impulse, including a lack of self-control and empathy. ” Typically, incarcerated persons only receive mental health treatment if they ask for an evaluation by prison psychology staff; however, it would be much more beneficial if they all received mental health assessments within the first several days of arrival.


During cognitive therapy, therapists use different steps. First, the patient accepts that some of their views and understandings of reality are false and can lead to negative thoughts. Next, the patient learns to recognize the automatic negative thoughts and learns alternative views that reflect more closely to reality. Then, the patient decides internally if the evidence supports the negative or positive thought. After practicing these steps, the hope is that the patient will recognize their negative thinking and avoid situations that bring those negative thoughts.


Psychologists put cognitive behavioral therapy to the test through a study in Chicago that found that when people participated in a cognitive behavioral treatment program, they were less likely to be arrested and more likely to make better life decisions. This program focused on slowing decision-making which led to less criminal activity. In low-income Chicago public schools, a local non-profit organization that focuses on Youth Guidance delivered weekly hour-long group sessions to at-risk male youth for one to two school years. In a game designed to test decision-making, the students in the program took about 80% more time than students in the comparison group to decide how to respond to a money transaction scenario. Because cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts, this exercise tested the ability to make more positive decisions. This program required weekly hour-long group sessions for at-risk students over two years, in which time arrests per student decreased by 12% by the end of the program.


Cognitive behavioral treatment also specializes in reducing violent tendencies. Two years after the Chicago program, violent crimes were reduced in the local area. This study suggests that beneficial mental health treatments can reduce the number of crimes committed by teaching inmates to control their anger during the decision-making process, the prison system might be able to reduce recidivism. Overall, mental health is essential to today’s society. Continuing to discuss and research how cognitive behavioral therapy can be beneficial in preventing crime will likely decrease the number of crimes and the prison population.


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