I have frequently been asked whether offenders can be effective counselors to other offenders. Advocates of criminals serving as agents of change assert that offenders are singularly qualified because they possess first-hand knowledge from their day to day experience on the street. Ostensibly, they are therefore more savvy and can empathize with those whom they counsel.
This is close to maintaining that one must have cancer to treat cancer. Actually, there is nothing more absurd than one irresponsible person endeavoring to teach another person how to be responsible. Criminals are always ready to tell others how to live and what to do. Serving as a counselor provides a platform to exert power and to control others.
I have observed criminals counseling one another in groups. Under the aegis of “confrontation,” they pounce on errors in thinking that others manifest, are quick to label and criticize, then build themselves up by lighting into others in order to show off their “knowledge.” Any advantage to having lived a criminal lifestyle is more than cancelled out by enduring character flaws that in the past have resulted in massive injury (emotional, financial, or physical) to other people.
There are several essential qualifications for people who desire to become counselors of offenders. The most important is that they are responsible human beings. They also must be knowledgeable about criminal thinking errors and tactics. Other important qualifications are patience, realistic expectations of oneself and others, an ability to be firm without being harsh, and having self-confidence based on responsible achievements, not pretensions.
No doubt there are male and female offenders who, no longer under supervision by the criminal justice system, have established an enduring record of stability and responsibility in their lives. These men and women could serve as effective change agents.
The above comments are not directed toward 12-step recovery groups which have built into their format twenty-four hour availability of sponsors who have a record of sobriety or abstention from the behavior at issue.
Let’s not presume that one need have been offender in order to counsel other offenders. That is not a qualification and may be a serious liability.