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Moving from Recidivism to Desistance through Thinking for a Change

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Recidivism remains one of the most fundamental concepts in the criminal justice system. Likewise, programs that reduce a person’s proclivity to recidivism, such as Thinking for a Change, provide an important link between re-offending and desistance; the process by which an offender arrives at a permanent state of non-offending.

The truth is that an individual released from incarceration will either recidivate or desist. Therefore, the statistical measurement of rates of recidivism informs the key principles of the criminal justice system; incapacitation (the effect of stopping people from committing crimes by removing them from society), specific deterrence (whether or not incarceration stops people from committing a further crime), and rehabilitation ( the effect of a program, such as Thinking for a Change on the reduction of crime by "repairing" the individual in some way ).

Recidivism is a concern for the criminal justice system. Studies by the Bureau of Justice indicate high rates of recidivism among those who are released from prison. Based on figures from 2005 to 2014, an estimated 68% of persons released from prison were arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.

Research over many decades has shown the effectiveness of cognitive-based approaches in reducing recidivism. Thinking for a Change, like several other programs that target those in the criminal justice system, utilizes cognitive behavioral change to move people from re-offending to desistance. The program has received evidence-based support, via studies, that have shown significant reductions in recidivism rates as the result of the Thinking for a Change program.

For those in an ongoing circle of their own thinking, the cognitive elements present in Thinking for a Change, offer a chance to break recurring conflict cycles and poor choices by breaking recidivistic tendencies, moving them towards desistance.

Even for those involved in the criminal justice system for the first time or as part of a pre-trial intervention program, participation in Thinking for a Change could be key to providing alternative skills that will help to establish and strengthen destistance. Through the provision of skills, the identification of new thoughts, and the establishment of new behaviors, the possibility of recidivism can be diminished.

The Thinking for a Change program can be effective if those taking our course are willing to accept what are a simple set of steps and a powerful method of cognitive change. I believe that for many it is a powerful engine of change, ultimately leading away from recidivism. As a facilitator, I have to accept that this may not be the case, although I hope it is. All I can do is plant seeds, or as we say in the program put skills in their pockets that give them choices. At the end of the day, group members may re-offend, but it will not be because they don’t have alternatives.

Alper, Mariel, Durose, Matthew R., Markman, Joshua, 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014) (pdf, 31 pages), Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, May 2018, NCJ 250975.

Justice, N. I. (n.d.). Recidivism. Retrieved June 20th, 2023, from National Institute of Justice:

Lowencamp, C. T., Hubbard, D., Makarios, M. D., & Latessa, E. J. (2009). A Quasi-Experimental Evaluation of the Thinking for a Change program. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(2), 137-146.


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