Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for offenders

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps clients discover and change the thought processes that lead to maladaptive behavior (). CBT programs for offenders emphasize personal accountability, help offenders understand the thoughts and choices that led to their crimes, and teach alternative behaviors and thought processes. Programs are delivered in correctional facilities for inmates or in community settings for probationers under supervision, as individual or group therapy (Campbell-Lipsey 2007). Offenders are often referred to CBT programs through the justice system; some offenders choose to participate voluntarily.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Reduced crime

  • Reduced recidivism

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) reduces recidivism among youth (Campbell-Lipsey 2007, , , ) and adult offenders (Campbell-Lipsey 2007, , Ferguson 2013, , , Feucht 2016). CBT also reduces recidivism among sex offenders (Campbell-Schmucker 2017, ). Effects are strongest for offenders with a high risk of recidivism (Campbell-Lipsey 2007).

CBT can also reduce recidivism among those with substance-related offenses (, , ). For violent and chronic juvenile male offenders, CBT is particularly effective in reducing the recurrence of serious crimes (Campbell-Garrido 2007). An evaluation of a CBT program designed for female offenders suggests CBT can reduce rearrests and reconviction among female offenders when implemented with high fidelity (). Analysis of Canada-based CBT programs indicates that CBT is effective for offenders with various ethnic backgrounds ().

The most effective CBT programs usually include anger management and interpersonal skills training. Training providers in CBT, closely monitoring programs, and ensuring program fidelity also result in better outcomes (Campbell-Lipsey 2007). CBT for juvenile offenders appears to reduce recidivism more when it includes group parenting education, particularly when parents complete the education ().

An Iowa-based cost-benefit analysis estimates a $35 return for every dollar invested in CBT programs (Pew-Results first 2013). 

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

There are some cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) programs widely used in the US criminal justice system, such as Aggression Replacement Training (EPISCenter-ART), Criminal Conduct and Substance Abuse Treatment-Strategies for Self-Improvement and Change (SSC), Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), Reasoning and Rehabilitation (Array), and Thinking for a Change (NIC-T4C) (US DOJ-CBT).

Implementation Resources

NIC-CBT - National Institute of Corrections (NIC). Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). US Department of Justice.

Citations - Evidence

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Campbell-Garrido 2007 - Garrido V, Morales LA. Serious (violent or chronic) juvenile offenders: A systematic review of treatment effectiveness in secure corrections. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2007:7.

Wilson 2005* - Wilson DB, Bouffard LA, Mackenzie DL. A quantitative review of structured, group-oriented, cognitive-behavioral programs for offenders. Criminal Justice and Behavior. 2005;32(2):172–204.

McMurran 2007* - McMurran M. What works in substance misuse treatments for offenders? Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health. 2007;17(4):225–33.

Campbell-Lipsey 2007 - Lipsey MW, Landenberger NA, Wilson SJ. Effects of cognitive-behavioral programs for criminal offenders. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2007:6.

Jeong 2017* - Jeong S, Fenoff R, Martin JH. Evaluating the effectiveness of an evidence-based cognitive restructuring approach: 1-year results from Project ASPECT. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. 2017;10(1):1-16.

Feucht 2016 - Feucht T, Holt T. Does cognitive behavioral therapy work in criminal justice? A new analysis from CrimeSolutions.gov. NIJ Journal. 2016;(277):10-17.

Barnes 2017* - Barnes GC, Hyatt JM, Sherman LW. Even a little bit helps: An implementation and experimental evaluation of cognitive-behavioral therapy for high-risk probationers. Criminal Justice and Behavior. 2017;44(4):611-630.

Jewell 2015* - Jewell JD, Malone MD, Rose P, Sturgeon D, Owens S. A multiyear follow-up study examining the effectiveness of a cognitive behavioral group therapy program on the recidivism of juveniles on probation. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 2015;59(3):259-272.

Usher 2014* - Usher AM, Stewart LA. Effectiveness of correctional programs with ethnically diverse offenders: A meta-analytic study. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 2014;58(2):209-230.

Ferguson 2013 - Ferguson LM, Wormith JS. A meta-analysis of moral reconation therapy. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 2013;57(9):1076-1106.

Campbell-Schmucker 2017 - Schmucker M, Lösel F. Sexual offender treatment for reducing recidivism among convicted sex offenders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2017:8.

Grady 2017* - Grady MD, Edwards D, Pettus-Davis C. A longitudinal outcome evaluation of a prison-based sex offender treatment program. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. 2017;29(3):239-266.

Quinn 2015* - Quinn TP, Quinn EL. The effect of cognitive-behavioral therapy on driving while intoxicated recidivism. Journal of Drug Issues. 2015;45(4):431-446.

Needham 2015* - Needham M, Gummerum M, Mandeville-Norden R, et al. Association between three different cognitive behavioral alcohol treatment programs and recidivism rates among male offenders: Findings from the United Kingdom. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 2015;39(6):1100-1107.

Duwe 2015* - Duwe G, Clark V. Importance of program integrity: Outcome evaluation of a gender-responsive, cognitive-behavioral program for female offenders. Criminology & Public Policy. 2015;14(2):301-328.

Pew-Results first 2013 - The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew). The Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative in Iowa (Results first). 2013.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

US DOJ-CBT - Thigpen ML, Keiser GM. Cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT): A review and discussion for corrections professionals. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice (US DOJ), National Institute of Corrections (NIC); 2007.

MRT - Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT). MRT changes minds.

R&R - Ross RR, Fabiano E, Ross RD. The reasoning & rehabilitation (R&R) program. Ottawa, CAN: Cognitive Centre of Canada.

EPISCenter-ART - Evidence-based Prevention & Intervention Support Center (EPISCenter). Aggression Replacement Training (ART). Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Penn State University Prevention Research Center.

NIC-T4C - National Institute of Corrections (NIC). Thinking for a Change (T4C). US Department of Justice.

Date Last Updated

Mar 28, 2018