Photo credit:QuotesEverlasting per Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: QuotesEverlasting per Creative Commons license.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove to Omaha to attend the second annual graduation ceremony for offenders under supervision who had successfully completed the intensive Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) program utilized by the Supervision Unit of our superb United States Probation office.  It was a heart-warming experience and, more importantly, a hopeful one.

What is MRT and why does US Probation use it? In answer to that question, consider the following:

*I detest the name “Moral Reconation Therapy” because it sounds creepy and because it is based on a word that is not typically used in modern parlance. The word “conation” is an archaic term for the word “ego” as that term is used in structural models of the mind. “Reconation” means, very roughly, to “reboot” the “ego.”

*Facilitated by specially trained US Probation Officers, MRT is utilized in a group setting over 18 to 20 weeks. Offenders are helped to recognize and more appropriately deal with the moral dimensions of daily living through very practical step-by-step aids. More specifically, MRT seeks to move offenders from a lower, hedonistic level of moral reasoning (pleasure vs. pain) to a higher level where social rules and other people become important.

*MRT is based on the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach to mental health treatment. CBT (1) focuses on specific problems of daily living and (2) is “action oriented” in the sense that the therapist assists the client in selecting specific strategies to address those specific problems. MRT then is properly seen as a branch of the more widely known and accepted CBT tree.

*Because MRT focuses on morality as an expression of free will, and because MRT is not strictly behavioral in orientation, one need not fear that the treatment is a “Clock Work Orange” approach to dealing with offenders.

*There is good evidence that MRT has a small but statistically significant relationship  to lowered rates of recidivism.

*MRT is only small part of the overall supervision of offenders, but it is an important one.

Although US Probation has been using MRT for some time, this was only the second “graduation” ceremony. Last year, the coordinator of the MRT program decided that completion of MRT justified a formal recognition of the offenders’ achievement. That ceremony was successful, and so it was duplicated again this year.

The ceremony was held in one of our stately courtrooms in the beautiful Hruska Courthouse in Omaha. Our Chief Judge, Laurie Smith Camp, spoke to the graduates and handed a small token of appreciation to the graduates as each one was formally and individually recognized (and applauded).  Two of the graduates spoke. Quite incidentally, I had sentenced those two. Their talks were inspiring. Family, friends, and even prosecutors, filled up the courtroom and then shared refreshments afterwards. I certainly hope these graduation ceremonies become woven into the fabric of the life of our court. They are good for the soul.

One last observation is in order. If we are to reduce the length of prison sentences so as to reduce costs, we must also increase, and substantially so, our ability to supervise offenders when they get out of prison. Providing quality supervision that protects the public requires a lot of time and hard work. That our US Probation Office conducts MRT groups throughout the year for offenders in Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island in addition to performing the more traditional law-enforcement functions of supervision, exemplifies a smart strategy that can reduce recidivism. FYI to Congress: Supervision that protects the public can’t be done on the cheap, particularly if it is an alternative to incarceration.


12 responses

  1. Susan,

    We are, indeed, very lucky. Since they are employees of the judiciary, our Probation office has been instructed to be independent of either party. That message has gotten through. Given the nature of the beast, however, that independence often annoys defense attorneys. That said, it is also true that such independence frequently annoys prosecutors too.

    By the way, Susan, and while I know you understand it, for others I should clarify something. While US Probation officers are employees of the judiciary, and not the executive branch, they may and frequently do carry weapons. 18 U.S.C. section 3603(9). Moreover, they may make arrests of probation and supervised release violators with or without a warrant. 18 U.S.C. section 3606. So, in some sense, they are permitted or required to act as “law enforcement officers.”

    All the best.


  2. What do these programs do–and what does the law actually allow–with regard to the individuals’ return to their original environment (with similar questions applied to prisoners released on parole)?

    Letting folks go back the environment in which they got into trouble just returns them to the same stimulus set that led them astray. Graduates of this sort of program may well be better equipped to resist those stimuli, but those new habits still are fragile. Sending graduates/parolees to different environments, in different cities or even regions of the US, might favorably impact recidivism rates.

    Eric Hines

  3. Eric,

    With regard to supervised release (there is effectively no parole in the federal system), a prisoner (soon to be released from prison) typically has a release plan prepared with the assistance of prison case manager or sometimes a probation officer that speaks to issues of residency. Sometime a proposed place of residency is not approved for the precise reason you articulate. Other times, we might even use a 120-day placement at a half-way house as a bridge to figure out where the best place is for the offender. You are certainly correct that returning offenders to the same environment can be troublesome, and many offenders elect to do something different like relocating to different cities or states where they have law-abiding friends or family. However, it is also true that sending an offender to an unfamiliar place, where there is no support group such as family members, has its own set of serious problems. Remember, that many of these folks lack even the rudimentary skills necessary for daily living. (Almost illiterate. Never held a job for more than few months. Never had a check book. You get the picture.)

    To sum up, the situation is, as you might imagine, different for every offender. There is, however, a good faith effort to address the important issue that you flag. Indeed, on the front end, in the presentence report, our District is now trying to incorporate more personal information therein, so that when it comes time for release, the data upon which residency and other decisions are based is more complete and informative.

    All the best.


  4. Clearly Nebraska is ahead of the curve on this. In my experience U.S. Probation is generally just interested in moving their charges through the system with the most hassle to the charge and the least hassle to U.S. Probation. CBT is frequently employed by behavior analysts with clients who are fully verbal. I am not an expert on this, but my spouse is a certified behavior analyst. I am frequently amazed at the effect CBT and other techniques can have on behavior of even the most disruptive students. It is possible that some of the decline in crime noted in one of your previous posts is attributable to the increased use of behavior analysis techniques in the school systems, adjusting student behavior before they become criminals. Your Clockwork Orange reference is particularly apt. Behavior analysts must constantly “fight” against the image that they just turn people into the equivalent of Skinner trained rats rather than guide the person to gain more positive autonomy over their lives.


  5. Dear Bob,

    I laughed out loud at your “Skinner rat” mention in reference to CBT. Probably TMI, but having undergone three years of of CBT myself, I was constantly annoyed by the therapist telling me, in so many words, to think for myself. Bullshit, I thought, that’s what I pay you for. Gradually, I got the idea, although, truth to tell, I still look for the cheese at the end of the rainbow.

    All the best.


  6. There was a cartoon during the time of my grad school days: two rats are in a Skinner box, and one is bragging to the other: “See how well I’ve got that human trained. I can summon him at any time by pressing this bar. He comes and gives me food.”

    Eric Hines

  7. Eric,

    Educated rats!

    As BF himself said, “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” New Scientist, May 21, 1964, as quoted in Paul Nelson, A salute to teachers!, 38 American Psychological Association, p. 41 (January 2007).

    All the best.


  8. Rich, this is interesting. I was drawn to this by the Einstein picture. Interestingly, Einstein’s IQ was estimated to be “only” 160. One of my kids had a speech issue early in life. The first thing they do is give the kid an IQ test to make sure it’s not a cognitive issue. The result was an estimated IQ of 180. As it turned out, this child lived up to that child’s billing. But it’s doubtful that anyone will ever be the next Einstein no matter how smart in a standardized test sense. I have concluded that there was a special, unmeasurable nature to Einstein’s brilliance — a sort of cosmic imagination. I was a Physics major (and it was assumed by many that I would follow in my father’s footsteps who is in his own right a famous experimental physicist, but I disappointed all and went to law school) so I have spent a lot of time thinking about Einstein. The interesting thing is that quotes of his in fields utterly removed from Physics show up, demonstrating a sort of unimaginable 5th dimension to his brilliance.

    As for the program, I believe in the redemption of souls. If it moves some in that direction that’s wonderful. Best, Pat.

  9. Pat,

    Thanks for giving us those personal and very interesting insights. Einstein’s moral sensibilities (not to mention his humility), as particularly reflected by the Einstein/Freud correspondence, truly sets him apart in ways, I agree, that are not quantifiable.

    All the best.


  10. Susan, I am sorry I cannot provide any further details because I don’t know them. You may wish to contact our probation office to get further information. See here for contact information.

    All the best.


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