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In 2016: Habilitation, Not Rehabilitation

A critical aspect of criminal justice reform

The pendulum has swung during many decades. On the one extreme, a prevalent view in the 1960s and into the 1970s was that almost any offender could be redeemed through participation in a variety of programs and extensive counseling. Then an era of therapeutic nihilism swept through the country in a “get tough” on criminals campaign. The prevailing opinion became that rehabilitation was a waste of resources, that the efforts were futile. The emphasis shifted to “incapacitation” or punishment. Never mind that almost every man, woman, and child locked up eventually would return to the community unchanged.

If one looks up the word “rehabilitate” in the dictionary, it means to restore someone or something to a previous constructive condition. One rehabilitates a crumbling historic building to restore it to its former grandeur. Physical therapists endeavor to rehabilitate patients so that they regain functions that they once had, such as full range of motion in a shoulder.

To what is there to “re-habilitate” many offenders who have failed throughout their lives to fulfill the requirements of others, have broken the law, and who have not developed an operational concept of injury to others? There is no previous constructive condition to which to restore them. The scope of the task of change is far greater than “rehabilitation.”

At the heart of the failure of many efforts to help offenders change is the belief that they were denied opportunities and lacked education, social skills, job skills, and knowledge of how to manage finances. Thus, the thinking has been, if one can equip offenders with such skills, they will become responsible citizens. Many of the programs have been well-implemented with excellent personnel and facilities. But the results, nonetheless, are dismal. If a criminal masters carpentry skills, the outcome is a criminal who is a carpenter. Learning those skills does not in itself change basic thinking and behavior patterns that are life-long. What good are the newly acquired skills if he does not show up for work on time, steals from the job site, and fails to perform quality work? These partial efforts are about as useful as pouring a delectable sauce over rancid meat.

Vocational rehabilitation and other social skill programs are important to living independently and responsibly. But by themselves, they are insufficient. Behavior is a product of thinking. If any of us seeks to change anything about ourselves, we must become aware of faulty thinking patterns that give rise to the undesirable behavior. And, of course, we must reach a point where we believe that the behavior is destructive to ourselves or others -- i.e., develop internal motivation to change.

For offenders to make significant and enduring changes, a process of “habilitation,” not “re-habilitation” is essential. It has taken a long time for professionals in mental health, corrections, and allied fields to recognize and endorse “habilitation” as a core concept in their work.

Hopefully, during 2016, with the current national emphasis on reform of criminal justice practices, we shall embrace the concept of “habilitation” rather than merely continue to pay lip service to helping offenders change (“rehabilitation”) and tread familiar dusty paths to dead ends. By focusing on the broader concept of “habilitation,” we will help offenders recognize their errors in thinking, then implement corrective concepts and live responsible lives.