For the past two years, I’ve been part of a non-profit company called Real Victory, which provides training in a cognitive behavioral model to probationers and parolees in the hopes of getting them to change their ways. I teach a series of six hour-and-a-half-long lessons over the course of six weeks that help people identify the basic principles that drive their behavior. Brigham Young University has been conducting a research study to determine whether or not the training reduces recidivism, and the results that have come in so far are very encouraging.
This has the potential to become a really big deal.
Spending time with people who have run afoul of the law has been a huge eye-opener for me. They are not the scary, snarling monsters I had imagined them to be. For the most part, they’re bright, engaging, and friendly. Yes, they’ve also screwed up their lives with poor decisions, but most of them desperately want straighten up and fly right.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
The national recidivism rate hovers somewhere around 80%, meaning the odds are stacked against these guys, Most of them will likely wind up in jail again. Why? Well, addictions are pretty hard to overcome, especially when you don’t have people around you who want you to stay clean. People who get dumped back out on the street end up going back to the only people they know and trust, and those people are usually the ones who helped them get in trouble in the first place.
There’s not much effective rehabilitation going on out there. The parole system is something of a joke. As one parole officer told me, “They pretend they’ve been good, and we pretend to believe them.”
People can’t just change what they do; they have to change why they do it. They have to change the way they think about themselves and the world around them. And most of these people have a seriously skewed view of the way things really work.
If you doubt that, read on.
In Utah County, where I teach these classes, about 2% of the total population is either in jail, on parole, or on probation.
Initially, that statistic seemed high to me, because I didn’t personally know anyone being processed through the criminal justice system. 1 out of 50 people are in trouble with the law? Can that be right?
Well, to help illustrate of how warped our perception of reality can be, I get each member of the class to offer a guess as to how many people in Utah County are either incarcerated or on probation and/or parole. I write their answers on the board and ask them to vote on which one they think is the most accurate.
I’ve never had them give me a number lower than 50%.
Usually, the guesses are higher than that. Some go as high as 90%, and nobody bats an eye. When I do the big reveal and tell them what the actual number is, none of them believe it. Then they rationalize it by saying “Well, my number is what it should be – because that’s how many people are doing what I’m doing and just haven’t been caught yet!”
If you think about it, though, it makes sense. The only people they know are people like them. In their world, everyone’s everyone either coming from or going to jail, and it’s almost impossible to imagine things being any other way.
Another question I ask them is how many of them either have been or know anyone who who has been deliberately stabbed. Usually, every hand in the room goes up. That’s just astonishing to me. They’re not living in the same world I am. They’d like to be, but they don’t know how to get there.
Teaching these classes hasn’t been particularly lucrative, but it’s easily the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.