Concept of the Month -- September 2010

"Sincerity" versus "Conviction" in an Offender Who Wants to Change

During forty years of evaluating and counseling offenders, I have encountered many who profess to want to change. Their motives vary as they assert they want to become responsible and give up a life of crime. Some speak of change after an arrest and they are facing prosecution. Some make such statements after the door of the jail or prison has slammed shut either before their trial or after. And there are those, albeit few in number, who are self-referred and are not facing legal proceedings.

I have no way of knowing at any given time whether the offender is making statements about change simply out of desperation and to seek a better outcome for a legal proceeding or whether there he has a genuine desire to live a different life. One should not be gullible and take statements of a desire to change at face value. On the other hand, there is no point to unbridled cynicism for that makes establishing a relationship with an offender impossible.

With many offenders, it is possible to establish that they have expressed a desire to change on other occasions in the past. These may have turned out to be statements of conveniencemade in a threatening legal situation. Or they may have been quite sincere. What happened, however, was that the sincerity did not translate into conviction. Such individuals did not want to continue a life of crime (risking incarceration, injury, or even death) and hurting people who care about him (e.g., parents, children, significant others). They thought they wanted to embrace a different lifestyle. However, as it turned out, they had unrealistic expectations. They thought change would be easy, that they would meet their goals quickly, and receive positive feedback from others and achive instant wealth. Their lifelong pattern had been to pursue any means to an end and to become bored with activities that did not offer excitement. They are like short distance sprinters, not long distance runners. In a program for change, what was acceptable became unacceptable. The ongoing effort necessary to do what is required and the deterrence of criminal thinking seem like the proverbial perpetua rolling of an enormous boulder up a hill. They quickly become disenchanted. Old patterns do not die or even diminish without great effort. The scope of the task of change is far more all encompassing then they ever imagined. "What do you have that compares to cocaine?" one offender asked. He was referring not just to the drug but to the entire way of life that drugs offer -- the people, the places, the thrill of the deal, and the other illicit activities that are part of the world of drugs and crime. He found that working at a day to day job, trying to make ends meet financially, attending meetings, and living an ordinary life was excruciatingly boring. Initially very sincere about change, he had done well by any standard. But he gave it all up and returned to crime, eventually getting arrested and returning to confinement with new charges and probation violations.

A person may be sincere about wanting to change. But there is no way he can comprehend at the time all that meaningful and lasting change entails. The disenchantment sets in when he sees how arduous the process is. He must live deprived of the "oxygen" of his life -- the excitement of doing the forbidden which includes building himself up at the expense of others.

In working with offenders, it is essential to provide the individual with a preview of what change entails, to help him adjust his expectations. Still, until he actually is struggling to live responsibly, those words may have little meaning.

Perhaps an analogy is a person who is enthused about losing weight. He readily sheds a few pounds. Then he sees what weight reduction that is enduring requires, namely an entire new set of eating habits. Only with the offender, he is confronted with changing an entire way of life. This is doable, but it is accomp;lished only with prolonged effort -- not doing things he wants to do and doing plenty of things he does not want to. Whether sincerity about change turns into conviction, only time can tell.

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