Applied Behavior Analysis in Corrections

Applied behavior analysis is used in the field of penology and criminal rehabilitation both in and outside of prisons, using operant conditioning techniques to reduce or eliminate criminal behaviors or other antecedent issues common to crime (such as drug addiction or mental health issues).

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One of the most influential theories of criminology in the modern era is Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association. Sutherland, a sociologist by training, believed that criminal behavior was not innate, but rather learned behavior, influenced by the environment in which the criminal existed and the consequences—both in terms of punishment and reward—that resulted.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it closely resembles the so-called ABCs that applied behavior analysts are trained to use to catalog every type of human behavior:

  • Antecedent – The prompt, or initial situation, leading to a behavior.
  • Behavior – The action or behavior in response to the antecedent.
  • Consequence – The reinforcement mechanism associated with the behavior.

Sutherland advanced his theory of differential behavior in 1924 and as applied behavior analysis came of age in the 1960s, practitioners were not slow to establish a relationship between the two. A 1965 paper published in the Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science showed that B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, which was sweeping the field of learning theory, provided scientific validation of many aspects of Sutherland’s theory. Moreover, operant conditioning could be used to modify any behavior, including criminal behaviors.

Today, ABAs work at a number of levels in the criminal justice system. They are frequently found working in drug treatment programs, working with both individuals and groups focused on rehabilitation. In prisons, ABAs help devise effective control mechanisms for groups of prisoners to help guards maintain control. ABAs also work in criminal and rehabilitation theory, helping to determine environmental factors leading to increases in criminal behavior, and working to find effective public policy to help reduce crime.

Failures to Apply Reinforcement Effectively Leads to a Rise in Recidivism

According to the National Institute of Justice, recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys have determined that around 70 percent of released prisoners are re-arrested within three to five years of release. For some particular types of crimes, such as property crimes, the rate is even higher—more than 80 percent.

A 2009 meta-analysis of 548 studies of recidivism conducted over 40 years showed that responses to criminal behavior based on deference and punishment were routinely less effective than those rooted in counseling and skill-building (such as basic education and behavior modification).

ABAs working in criminal rehabilitation have a proven track record of using behavior analysis techniques to reduce recidivism rates. Beginning in the 1970s, ABAs implemented a basic contingency management system to treatment work with juvenile delinquents and found that it reduced recidivism rates by about one-third.

Although the number of offenders is too high to conduct a full functional behavior assessment (FBA) on each one, ABAs have contributed to the field of assessing risks for reoffending by developing generic questionnaires using behavioral elements, such as the Santa Barbara Assets and Risk Assessment Form. Law enforcement professionals around the country now use SBARA to evaluate convicts for the likelihood of recidivism and to modify their treatment or probation terms to accommodate the risk.

Token Economies in Prison Management

One of the most prominent uses of applied behavior analysis in the penal system has been in the widespread adoption of token economies in jails and prisons.

First introduced in the 1960s, token economies rely on providing immediate, tangible rewards in exchange for desirable behaviors. A token economy offers participants a type of token (either a physical item such as a chip or card, or simply points on a scorecard) that may be exchanged later for other goods of value.

Because prisons represent a highly controlled environment, where jailers can both bestow and confiscate almost any item of value, they were an ideal setting for offering reinforcement in such a system. Guards could immediately offer tokens to prisoners engaging in appropriate behaviors, or reduce the tokens of those violating the rules.

Token economies emphasize positive feedback and have proved to be effective in controlling prison populations without draconian uses of force or threats. The staffing requirements to operate such programs were affected by prison system cutbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, however, reducing the number of institutions running such systems today.

Treatment for a Drug-Addicted Prison Population

According to the National Center on Substance Abuse, 65 percent of prisoners in the United States meet the medical criteria for drug addiction. As one of a handful of effective treatments for substance abuse, applied behavior analysis is making inroads in prison drug treatment programs.

In the past, most prisons maintained a punishment-based policy for dealing with addiction issues in prison populations. This paradigm has resulted in low levels of motivation among prisoners and a lack of engagement in existing treatment programs.

Project BRITE, a four-year study undertaken in two different prisons, examined a comprehensive implementation of applied behavior analysis principles in drug treatment programs. BRITE was rooted heavily in an ABA technique called Contingency Management (CM). A variant of a token economy, this voucher-based reinforcement technique has a 95 percent success rate.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which combines applied behavior analysis techniques with traditional cognitive psychotherapy, has become another widely-used, effective therapeutic technique for a variety of mental illnesses and is now finding favor in criminal rehabilitation. Of all the correctional techniques examined in the 2009 meta-analysis, CBT was found to be the most consistently effective method of preventing recidivism in criminals.

CBT is effective because it combines the logical reasoning of moral and law-abiding behavior with behavioral analysis techniques that work to reinforce those patterns with a substantive pattern of rewards and positive encouragement. One popular program incorporating CBT elements, Aggression Replacement Training, uses ABA methods for handling reactions to common triggers, including cues and reminders, while incorporating cognitive elements that raise awareness of fairness, justice, and morality.

Applied Behavior Analysis Can Boost Compliance and Reduce Incarceration Rates

Although ABA has many applications working directly with convicts, the field also has important perspectives to offer on the structure of the criminal justice system as a whole. One view of the justice system looks at it as nothing more than a very large-scale mechanism for enforcing behavioral norms on a large population of people.

The Vera Institute of Justice, an independent non-profit research and policy organization based in New York, worked with Richmond County, New York, in a study that examined the behavioral implications of increasing the use of fines as deterrents for certain crimes in lieu of traditional incarceration and parole.

Fines are another example of a contingency management system. Balancing the effects of the contingency to maximally reinforce behaviors is an important aspect of such systems, and researchers theorized that “day fines,” scaled up or down based on the defendant’s ability to pay, might prove more effective and more palatable to judges than fixed fines or incarceration. The program was implemented as a pilot project in the Richmond County Court system with positive results.

Although hampered in part by state laws outside the control of the local courts, the program did find that the courts were able to achieve a significant increase in compliance and a reduction in the amount of bench-warrants issued for the arrest of violators.

Preparing for a Career in Applied Behavior Analysis in Corrections

Most applied behavior analysts working in corrections are involved in providing therapy to offenders with various behavioral issues. These frequently include drug and alcohol treatment and therapies for violent offenders with anger management issues.

These ABAs are often contract employees working for private clinics where their practice area overlaps into similar patients outside the correctional system. One of the best ways to gain the necessary experience for practicing in prisons or jails is to begin by working in addiction or behavioral treatment with patients outside the justice system.

There is also a substantial crossover between ABAs working in special needs classrooms and those dealing with juvenile delinquency issues. It is broadly recognized in the correctional system that reaching potential offenders when they are young and providing rehabilitation is preferable to dealing with them after they have become hardened repeat offenders. A corresponding emphasis is placed on delivering therapeutic services for youth with behavioral problems.

Regardless of the specific practice area, ABAs entering the correctional field will need a master’s or doctoral degree in education, applied behavior analysis, or psychology. A professional certification, the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) credential from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, is a prerequisite for all of these positions.

It’s also useful to have a specialty certification in drug or alcohol rehabilitation. Most states have their own certificate programs, but the National Association for Addiction Professionals and the National Board for Certified Counselors both offer national Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) certificates.

Additionally, ABAs hoping to work in criminal justice will need to ensure that their own record remains clean. Convictions for drug or alcohol offenses, or any sort of felony offense, will usually preclude any sort of job working in the prison system.

More Resources for Information on Applied Behavior Analysis in Penology

Association for Behavior Analysis International – The ABAI has a Special Interest Group dedicated to the study and support of applied behavior analysis in crime, delinquency, and forensic behavior analysis.

The Association for Addiction Professionals Certificate Programs – The NAADAC is a national non-profit offering three different levels of addiction treatment certification.

National Board for Certified Counselors – The NBCC offers a national counseling certification with a specialty option available for addiction counseling.

National Association for Addiction Treatment Professionals – A national non-profit association to provide leadership, advocacy, and training for addiction treatment providers.

American Addiction Treatment Association – An association of addiction treatment professionals that provides resources on regulations and best practice for the addiction treatment industry.

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