Qualitative Review of APD's Cognitive Behavioral Interventions

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a well-established talk therapy model that teaches people cognitive skills to help shift their thinking process. It focuses on a person’s ability to identify their emotions, understand how their emotions affect their thoughts, and understand how their thoughts affect their actions. Research on CBT in community corrections has shown that CBT is an effective model to address criminal thinking and recidivism. 

In 2008, the Adult Probation Department (APD) implemented an internal CBT program, Thinking for a Change (T4C), which is facilitated by trained probation officers. In 2019, CCAPD partnered with a community-based agency to offer additional CBT programming. Between 2020-2023, APD’s research team conducted interviews with participants in these two programs to explore how they help participants internalize the aims of CBT. Participants in both programs are typically mandated by the court to attend sessions; therefore, they are often resistant to the program at first and may come into the program with a negative view. APD investigated how this resistance is broken down during the programs and what leads to participant buy-in and behavior change.

Researchers found that internalization begins with the establishment of a supportive, nonjudgmental culture, which CBT facilitators can create, and which is enhanced by a community of peers. In this culture, participants can express themselves, find connection with their classmates, and learn strategies for navigating relationships, conflict, and the court experience.

CBT facilitators create a positive atmosphere by starting with themselves. By focusing on supporting participants with dignity, understanding, and humor, facilitators can begin to balance out initial negativity and apathy. When a class consists of peers, participants can connect over shared experiences and see themselves in one another. Within this environment, one participant leader needs to be the brave first to open up. This begins a cycle where others are encouraged to do the same. As more individuals talk about their lives using CBT skills, they share motivation, support, and understanding. In the difficult and often isolating court experience, participants begin to feel they are not alone. 

Once participants begin to open up and buy in, they begin to develop what the research team has identified as wellness capital. Wellness capital is a collection of skills, relationships, and resources that support personal and relational wellbeing and quality of life improvements, including freedom from further system involvement. Through engagement with the positive environment, participants said they developed personal, social, and community benefits such as self-belief, self-control, empathy, and hope. For people in the T4C program, having facilitators familiar with the court process was helpful because they could offer more understanding and support with any court mandates.

Importantly, these positive effects were observed despite the virtual delivery of classes during this timeframe. Internalization is enhanced by the group structure, with peer leads playing a large role in successfully inviting others into the process; however, it can be reached even in one-on-one settings if the facilitator offers similar peer support. 

Naturally, levels of program buy-in varied. For some, the buy-in is limited to achieving legal or material goals. For example, they hoped a recommendation to the judge or a “good word” would aid in their legal situation, they were focused on securing employment or other basic needs. But for many others, the CBT experience created a broad perspective shift in the way they viewed themselves and their world. 

CBT programs provide a unique and supportive space for people to be both understood and challenged to develop healthy ways of thinking and relating to others. Even when delivered virtually, classes promote participants’ expression, agency, and vulnerability, while developing important skills. From these interviews, it is clear that participants are gaining meaningful skills that support their holistic wellbeing. Future analyses will examine the impact of CBT programming on outcomes like recidivism.