On Justice and Therapy

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Working with court-referred clients provides a look into two contrasting worldviews.

Two Avenues

When someone’s found guilty of a crime, there are two major avenues for dealing with the offender: punishment and rehabilitation. While punishment is designed to deter offending through fear of consequences, rehabilitation is concerned with helping the guilty party function better and remove the need to offend further.

As a therapist, my job is rehabilitation. But many of my clients come to me through the court and prison systems. The trouble is that the way to think about court or prison is almost diametrically opposed to how to think about therapy.

They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

For the most part, the justice system is something most of us would like to keep at a distance. In the US, it is a fairly common belief that police and prosecutors have a motivation to catch ‘bad guys’ over and above checking whether their suspicions are correct. This results in the popularity of videos such as Don’t Talk to the Police. Partially because of the time and expense required to defend against a criminal case, 94% of all state cases and 94.4% of federal cases resulted in plea bargains or no-contest pleas. With cops and judges, the standard approach is to keep quiet, avoid contact, and when confronted, negotiate a rapid disengagement while avoiding issues of substance.

All these behaviors that make sense in a judicial context stand in opposition to what makes therapy work. If there’s any hope of change, a client needs to think of the therapist as invested in their well-being, not against them or out to get them. In a court-mandated situation, especially when the therapist is required to make reports to probation or parole. It’s a testament to the intensity of our need to connect and tell our stories that most mandated clients do eventually get over their initial standoffishness, and begin to work in therapy.

Wrong or Right

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Bart Simpson said it best: “I didn’t do it, nobody saw me do it, there’s no way you can prove anything.” That’s the attitude many people seem to develop coming out of prison. Perhaps that part of their mindset got them into trouble in the first place, but it also reflects the logic of the law. To a judge, a person is either guilty or not guilty with no room in between. And it’s not what someone did, but what the prosecution can prove beyond some legal standard of evidence.

More than a few of my clients have come into therapy with an intent to ‘re-try’ their case before me, as if convincing either me or themselves that the conviction was unjust would either free them or give them a sense that they were the victim and not the offender.

Legalistic thinking has no place in therapy. When I run into a session that feels more like a court case, I remind the client that I’m not a judge, and that if they feel they need to re-try their case, they should be seeing a lawyer, not me.

Productive thinking in therapy is very different from legalistic thinking. Understanding emotional and relational issues requires a soft focus and a willingness to look at what might be happening, rather than what can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Treatment isn’t Punishment

Prison is unpleasant on purpose. The idea of punishment is to make someone associate suffering with bad behavior so that they won’t re-offend — we will not debate the effectiveness of this approach here. Offenders come to the conclusion that most of what happens to them after they are convicted is punishment, meant to make them feel bad. Inmates are assigned extra punishment for bad behavior and privileges for good behavior. The lesson is clear: success equals less pain.

Therapy can be unpleasant too. But therapists are not, as a rule, in the business of making clients suffer as a deterrent to bad behavior. Therapy is most often unpleasant because it requires clients to look at themselves in a way that is unflattering, or to practice behaviors that are not second nature. Unlike in prison, avoiding discomfort is counterproductive. To avoid the discomfort that comes with therapeutic work is to stall the process.

Nobody’s Perfect

Another consequence of the Bart Simpson mindset is that many court-mandated clients confuse having issues with being guilty of crimes. It’s absolutely essential in a legal situation to avoid any admission of guilt. And a quick shortcut to that aim is to hold the position that everything in life is ideal and that there are no problems to discuss.

The “no problems” attitude is a big roadblock in therapy for a couple of reasons. First is that therapy, if it is about anything, is about awareness. Creating a whitewashed self-image is 180 degrees removed from that kind of open awareness. Problems that go unacknowledged and unaddressed have a way of hanging around and rearing their ugly heads at the worst times.

Working with someone fresh out of the justice system, I find it very important to normalize problems and remind clients that everyone has them. The point is not to go from ‘broken’ to ‘perfect’ but to go from having problems to having fewer or higher-quality problems. To move from a position of “I have to be perfect or I’ll go back to jail” towards “I can have problems, and admit them, and work on them, and still not reoffend” allows a court-mandated client the breathing room they need to not only progress in therapy, but also get on with their lives.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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