Fact Sheet: CBT Offender Therapy

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Fact sheets undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication.
About the author: This article is part of the Undergraduate Author Series, which means that it was primarily written by an undergraduate university student. This article was written as a guest post by Emily Edwards, an honours psychology student at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Manuscript preparation was supervised by May Kanippayoor, the EAPL-S peer-review co-ordinator.

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Overcrowded correctional facilities and heightened recidivism rates are among the leading problems that governments around the world have begun to recognize and reconcile in their legal systems. In response to internal concerns over the pragmatic and financial burdens posed by these growing issues on international legal systems, governments have sought the assistance of psychological treatment programs for in-prison populations with the goal of reducing recidivism and, in turn, assisting with the dilemma of overcrowded prisons. The challenge in designing in-prison therapies, however, is two-fold: treatments should be tailored to the type of offender while still maintaining low implementation costs to correctional facilities. 

Risk, Need, and Responsivity

Andrews and colleagues (1990) proposed that the three psychologically informed principles of risk, need, and general responsivity are essential to the effectiveness of forensic treatment programs in reducing criminal reoffending. Essentially, correctional treatment programs are most effective in reducing recidivism when the intensity of the therapy is matched to the offender’s level of risk (e.g., higher risk offenders are exposed to more intensive treatment); when the dynamic risk factors that underlie or influence offending behavior, such as family, peer relations, antisocial attitudes, and anger and impulsivity control (i.e., criminogenic needs) are targeted; and when the style and mode of treatment service is tailored to the learning style of the offender. These three core principles of the “What Works” (or RNR) Approach to correctional rehabilitation have become the standard for evaluating the efficacy of offender-based therapy programs (Andrews & Bonta, 2003). 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in Forensic Populations

Cognitive-behavioral approaches to therapy (CBT) adhere to the above standards and have been well supported in the literature for successfully treating various forensic populations, including violent, sexual, and juvenile offenders (Jeglic, Maile & Mercado, 2010). Risk is addressed by manipulating the time spent in therapy and/or the intensity of group settings. Criminogenic needs are handled by targeting cognitive distortions assumed to underlie an offender’s inept ability to correctly read social cues, accept blame and engage in moral reasoning (Lipsey, Landenberger & Wilson, 2007). Needs are further addressed by using behavioral learning techniques such as role playing exercises, reward and punishment contingencies, and modeling (Hubbard & Latessa, 2004). Finally, the use of CBT-based approaches can be generalized across different types of offenders, thereby addressing the responsivity principle of the RNR approach. Such generalizability is also useful for correctional facilities attempting to manage costs associated with training personnel as well as maintaining equipment and materials.

CBT over Alternative Treatments

Popular alternatives to CBT include, for example, humanistic approaches that emphasize the positive development of the offender over behavioral modification and psychoeducational methods, which aim to educate offenders about crime and victim statistics. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that these approaches, when used alone, are successful at reducing recidivism (Pearson, Lipton, Cleland & Yee, 2002). 

Recidivism base rates vary across a number of factors, including the type of offense, the level of risk, and the country of origin. For instance, approximately 66% of offenders in the United States are estimated to recidivate within the first three years of release (Langan & Levin, 2002), whereas approximately 37.9% of Spanish offenders recidivate within four years (Redono, Funes & Luque, 1994). CBT has been found to be a more superior approach to decreasing rates of recidivism over alternative treatment modalities (Pearson, Lipton, Cleland & Yee, 2002). Successful completion has been found to reduce reconviction rates by 10-15% in comparison to control samples (Friendship, Blud, Erikson, Travers & Thornton, 2003; McGuire, 2000), with greater success rates generally found in medium to high risk offenders compared to offenders of medium to low risk (Friendship, Blud, Erikson, Travers & Thornton, 2003). 

Moreover, adherence to and proper administration of cognitive-behavioral principles, operating within the RNR approach, are found to be more essential to reducing recidivism than the specific treatment plan used (Landenberger & Lipsey, 2005). More commonly researched and implemented treatment programs for forensic populations include:

  • Moral Reconation Theory (Little & Robinson, 1988)
  • Reasoning and Rehabilitation (Ross & Fabiano, 1985)
  • Aggression Replacement Training (Goldstein & Glick, 1994)
  • Thinking for a Change (Bush, Glick, & Taymans, 1997)
  • Relapse Prevention Therapy (Parks, & Marlatt, 2000)


At present, researchers suggest that implementing cognitive-behavioral therapy into treatment programs within correctional facilities can significantly decrease recidivism rates by approximately 10-15%, a pattern that has been observed across North American and select European countries. Many treatment programs for in-prison populations have been and continue to be developed within a CBT framework, with the ultimate goal of each program providing correctional facilities with a low-cost, high-success treatment plan to help reduce recidivism and, in turn, discontinue overcrowded prisons.

Quick summary

  • Countries around the world struggle with recidivism and correctional facility overcrowding
  • The RNR Approach has been developed as a standard for evaluating offender therapy programs
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy designs adhere to the RNR approach and are most effective in reducing recidivism
  • Successful completion of CBT reduces recidivism by 10-15%

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Andrews, D. A., Bonta, J., & Hoge, R. D. (1990). Classification for effective rehabilitation: Rediscovering psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17, 19-52.

Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (2003). The psychology of criminal conduct (3rd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Bush, J., Glick, B., & Taymans, J. (1997). Thinking for a change: Integrated cognitive behavior change program. National Institute of Corrections. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

Friendship, C., Blud, L., Erikson, M., Travers, R. & Thornton, D. (2003). Cognitive-behavioural treatment for imprisoned offenders: An evaluation of HM Prison Service's cognitive skills programmes. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 8, 103–114.

Goldstein, A. P., & Glick, B. (1994). Aggression replacement training: Curriculum and evaluation. Simulation & Gaming, 25(1), 9-26.

Hubbard, D.J. & E.J. Latessa. (2004). Evaluation of cognitive-behavioral program for offenders: A look at the outcome and responsivity in five treatment programs. Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati.

Itlescas, S., Sánchez-Meca, J., & Genovés, V. (2001). Treatment of offenders and recidivism: Assessment of the effectiveness of programmes applied in Europe. Psychology In Spain, 5(1), 47-62.

Jeglic, E.L., Maile, C., & Mercado, C.C. (2010). Treatment of Offender Populations: Implications for Risk Management and Community Reintegration. In L. Gideon & H. Sung (Eds.), Rethinking Corrections.: Rehabilitation, re-entry and reintegration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press.   

Landenberger, & Lipsey. (2005). The positive effects of cognitive–behavioral programs for offenders: A meta-analysis of factors associated with effective treatment. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 1(4), 451-476.

Langan, P. A. & Levin, D. J. (2002). Recidivism of prisoners released in 1994. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Lipsey, M. W., Landenberger, N. A., & Wilson, S. J. (2007). Effects of cognitive-behavioral programs for criminal offenders. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 3(6).

Little, G. L., & Robinson, K. D. (1988). Moral reconation therapy: A systematic step-by step. Psychological Reports, 62(1), l35-151.

McGuire, T. J. (2000). Correctional institution based sex offender treatment: a lapse behavior study. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 18, 57–71.

Parks, G. A. & Marlatt, G.A. (2000). Relapse prevention therapy: A cognitive-behavioral approach. The National Psychologist, 9(5).

Pearson, F. S., Lipton, D. S., Cleland, C. M., & Yee, D. S. (2002). The effects of behavioral/cognitive-behavioral programs on recidivism. Crime & Delinquency, 48(3), 476-496.

Redondo, S. Funes, J., and Luque, E. (1994). Justicia Penal y Reincidencia. Barcelona: Jaume Callís.

Ross, R. R., & Fabiano, E. A. (1985). Time to think: A cognitive model of delinquency prevention and offender rehabilitation. Johnson City. TN: Institute of Social Sciences and Arts.

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