Concept of the Month -- January 2010

The Changeability of the Criminal

My colleague and mentor from so many years ago, Dr. Samuel Yochelson, would say to the criminals whom he was seeing, "Who are you today?" This had nothing to do with psychosis or a dissociative reaction (e.g., multiple personality). Rather, he constantly observed first hand the changeability of these men. One day a man would be contrite and intense about change. He would be receptive to constructive criticism and eager to improve. The next day, that very individual would be imperious, angry, and ready to abandon any efforts to change. I recall a mugger and thief who was so determined to change that he began attending church daily, started reading the Bible regularly, and touched a cross he wore around his neck whenever he slipped and uttered a curse word. This man wanted to be purer than pure. He wearied of this in time and again became a very dangerous individual. No more church, Bible reading, or touching the cross.

To even a trained observer, these shifts may be suggestive of a mood disorder, possibly a bipolar disorder,or some other psychological disorder. The changeability may be rapid occurring within a day or over a period of days.

What is actually occurring is that the criminal has competing desires. He may desire to change but he also wants the excitement of his way of life --- a little bit like St. Augustine -- "I want to be pure, God, but not yet." The changeability of the criminal is NOT a result of a mental illness. He makes choices, at times going from one extreme to another. Extremism in thinking is one characteristic of his cognitive functioning. The offender may be sincere about wanting to change, but he also wants what he wants when he wants it. Helping an offender to remain fed up with his criminal lifestyle and on track to change to a way of life that he has envied but never lived for long is at the heart of the challenge of "habilitation."

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