In my last post regarding offender therapy, I discussed, briefly, one of the three contributors to the development and maintenance of the criminal lifestyle - conditions. In this post, I'll take a look at the second of the "Three Cs," according to Glenn Walters - Choice.
The conditions a person is impacted by - biological, societal, etc. - no doubt exert an influence on the type of lifestyle an individuals leads. This is not incompatible with the concept of choice. This relationship, unfortunately, is either not grasped, or acknowledged, by many people. In discussions about responsibility for behavior, it seems many people will reflexively defend either conditions or choice as the only meaningful influence, while dismissing the other. In fact, both have some impact one the direction of an individual's lifestyle.
The best way to consider the relationship between conditions and choice is to think of conditions as being the boundaries within which choices operate. In other words, choices may be limited by the type of conditions an individual is under, but within those limitations, the individual makes choices with respect to their actions. As a simple example, an individual with an IQ of 90 (a biological condition) has a certain limitation with respect to their choice of career - he or she likely cannot (like most of us!) become a neurosurgeon. This is not a limitation for an individual with an IQ of 145 (everything else being equal). However, an individual with an IQ of 90 has many choices available to him or her regarding career, despite the fact that may be limited in choices compared to the individual with an IQ of 145 (again, everything else being equal).
The number, and intensity, of the conditions impacting an individual may limit their number of choices to a greater degree than the average person, or even most people. However, except with respect to the most extreme conditions (i.e. severe mental retardation), an individual makes choices within a band of options, and is not "forced" to behave a certain way. From a therapeutic standpoint, this is extremely important, and must consistently be emphasized. Otherwise, an offender will regularly distance themselves from responsibility for their criminal actions by identifying the various conditions that "left them no choice" but to act in a criminal manner.
A couple of other observations regarding the concept of choice. First, we tend to hold children to different standards than adults with respect to the responsibilities for the choices they make. This is appropriate, to the extent that the age and maturity level of the child is considered, as is the type of choice made. While a five-year old's brain has developed very little thus far, and has an extremely small reservoir of prior knowledge to draw upon, a twelve-year old has a more fully functioning brain, and more experience, and an eighteen-year old even more. A "One Size Fits All" approach to kids makes no more sense than to any other group. Unfortunately, this is another area where many people will tend to defend either one extreme or the other. Some will argue that, no matter the circumstances, the boy or girl "is just a kid," and will seek to blame parents, teachers, etc. for the choices of the child. On the other hand, some will want children to be regarded as "miniature adults" regardless of their individual conditions at the time of their behavior, and seek to hold them accountable accordingly. People and their behaviors are much too complicated to ever be able to apply a "One Size Fits All" approach - one must examine all of the factors involved in each particular case.
From a treatment perspective, I have often seen more of the first style than of the second (from a legal perspective, you tend to see both). That is, parents and others using conditions and "pseudo-conditions" (what I would define as conditions that are only conditions because of choices already made) to excuse the behaviors of children (especially adolescents) that were clearly choices. "Little Johnny is a good boy," a parent might say of their 15-year old son, "he just runs with a bad crowd." Most schools have multiple "crowds" with which to run - why has Johnny chosen to run with this particular crowd? Why, when this "crowd" skips school, picks on others, and engages in substance abuse, does Johnny stay with them? Could it be that Johnny is attracted to the activities of this crowd? Hard for a parent to acknowledge, no doubt, but better to acknowledge now, rather than later, when this "crowd is older, involved in even more extreme behaviors, and these activities are more ingrained in "little" Johnny's behavioral arsenal.
The other issue I often discuss with clients is expanding their range of options ("choices") by addressing the conditions in their life that are amenable to change. Some conditions, like a physical characteristic), may not be changeable. I've often joked with my groups that my first choice in career would have been to be a point guard in the NBA - however, I'm too slow, too uncoordinated, and too bound by the laws of gravity (i.e. I can't jump) to play good intramural ball, let alone professional ball. Does that give me permission to knock off convenience stores? On the other hand, other conditions are amenable to change. Consider sphere of information. If a child grows up with two alcoholic parents, they may learn only one way to "cope" with stress - consumption of alcohol. Their sphere of information is extremely limited in this regard. We really cannot expect the person, at age 18, to have too many other behavioral coping strategies with respect to stress, because they've never seen them, or learned them. However, they can learn them, if they provide themselves with the opportunity (e.g. entering therapy, enrolling in AA, etc.). I always frame an offender's participation in therapy in this way - we are expanding one's sphere of information, so that he/she has a wider range of informed options available to them when decisions in the future will need to be made. And, as an adult, one is held to the standard of affording themselves to opportunities to change, if the current behavior is not effective. That is, if it ain't working, fix it. And if you can't do it by yourself, get help.
In closing, conditions inform the number of choices available to an individual, but an individual always has choices. In therapy with offenders, this point must be consistently emphasized in order to increase the level of accountability an offender has for their actions. Next, we will take a look at the third "C" - cognitions, or thoughts about ourselves, others and the world that influence the choices we make.