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 Criminogenic Risk Factors 

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Michael Santos

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In this era of the First Step Act, people going through the criminal justice system will want to pay close attention to the way that the Bureau of Prisons, or other agencies, will expect their staff members to assess a person’s readiness for release. Through my advocacy work, I’ve learned that administrators put a lot of emphasis on “criminogenic needs.”

What are Criminogenic Needs?

Scholars define criminogenic needs as follows:

Criminogenic needs are factors in an offender’s life that relate to a person’s propensity to recidivate—or face more problems with the criminal justice system. Researchers identify six factors that relate to a risk of criminal behavior. Those factors include:

  1. Low self-control,
  2. Anti-social personality,
  3. Anti-social values,
  4. Criminal peers,
  5. Substance abuse, and
  6. Dysfunctional family.

Remember, we don’t want to think about these concepts from the way that we see ourselves. Nor do we want to consider this concept of criminogenic needs from the perspective of people who know and love us.

When we’re contemplating the concept of criminogenic needs, we need to begin from the concept of people who work in the “corrections” trade. Those people hold positions of authority that have enormous discretion over the lives of people in jail or prison. Directly or indirectly, they include:

  1. Probation officers
  2. Judges,
  3. Administrators who preside over prison designations,
  4. Administrators who preside over custody and classification,
  5. Administrators who preside over hallway houses and home confinement,
  6. Administrators who preside over eligibility for program participation,
  7. Administrators who have authority to grant liberty,
  8. Administrators who determine where a person will work,
  9. Administrators who can determine whether to advocate on behalf of a person with a criminal record,
  10. People who will make judgments based upon what they read in government or media reports about a person convicted of a crime.

To consider such people, we’ve got to disengage from the way we view ourselves. Typically, people don’t believe that prison is an appropriate response for their behavior. And the people who know them best don’t think prison is the appropriate response. But we’re not necessarily writing a release plan for people with this perspective.

We write release plans from the perspective of people who have enormous discretion over our future.

Learning to Consider Different Perspectives:

Participants who’ve read my work previously know that I like to quote authors who had an influence on changing the way that I think. While going through 26 years in prison, I read voraciously. At the start of each year, I’d set goals of how many books that I intended to read. Then, as I advise others to do, I wrote book reports to describe:

  1. Why I read the book,
  2. What I learned from reading the book,
  3. How the book would influence my prospects for success upon release.

Those books helped me to consider different perspectives. One author, Seth Godin, wrote a concept about the purple cow.

Mr. Godin wrote to influence corporate marketers. He wanted those people to stop thinking about their products or services from the perspective of the brands they represented. Rather, he wanted marketing professionals to think about the perspective of people who would purchase the product.

  • What did they think?

When building a release plan, we should follow this same advice that Mr. Godin gives to his audience. It’s not important what we think, we’ve got to think about our audience.

  • Who are they?
  • What do they think about us?
  • How can we influence them?

Since we’re thinking about people that will have enormous discretion over our life, we’ve got to consider them as being people of influence.

Typically, those people do not go into law enforcement with this concept of wanting to help people in prison. That isn’t in their nature. In their view, helping a person in prison may be synonymous with being “soft on crime,” or being “sympathetic to the criminal, and hard on the victim.”

These are not my words. But this is the mindset of people that will judge you.

Writers like Seth Godin helped me to appreciate this conundrum of being a justice impacted person. To further the analogy, he told us to imagine driving down the highway. If we viewed a pasture populated with a thousand head of cattle, we wouldn’t pay attention. We’re so used to seeing cows that we simply keep driving, ignoring the cows because they all looked the same.

But if anyone saw a purple cow, he wrote, those people would pause to look and consider the purple cow. How did it get that way?

While going through 9,500 days in prison, I understand that in the eyes of people who worked as stakeholders of the system, I was simply a purple cow. People didn’t see me as anything different from all the other cows in the system. I was number 16377-004.

Unit Team:

I will always remember the first time I went to a unit team meeting. It was back in the 1980s. Ronald Regan was still in the White House. We frequently saw the First Lady, Nancy Reagan on television talking about her “Just-Say-No” campaigns during the War on Drugs.

All that messaging influenced the way that staff members considered people like me. A jury had convicted me of selling cocaine. A federal judge sentenced me to serve a 45-year sentence. Administrators in the Bureau of Prisons deemed me an appropriate candidate for placement in a high-security US Penitentiary.

I had never been to prison before and I didn’t know anything about the prison system. I didn’t know how to influence the system or influence the way that people in the system would view me.

I wanted those people to view me as I viewed myself, or as the people who knew best understood me. Yet neither of those perspectives mattered. I had to think about the stakeholders. And I was only learning how to being going through life from their perspective.

Before going into that first team meeting, I remember thinking about what I wanted. The 40-walls that surrounded the penitentiary that holding me stifled my energy and creativity. Media reports described the prison as being one of the most violent in the nation. Within the first weeks there, I knew that I would have to make my life in an environment where crimes such as robbery, extortion, rape, and murder would be a normal part of the day.

Before that first team meeting, I had heard that the Federal Bureau of Prisons operated prisons of many different security levels. All prisons were not the same as a typical high-security prison. The agency also operated “federal correctional institutions” or minimum-security camps.

I thought about what I wanted rather than what the system wanted. And during that first team meeting, I asked the members of my unit team if there was any way that I could transfer to one of those other types of prisons.

“Mr. Santos, a federal judge sentenced you to serve a 45-year sentence. We’ve placed a public-safety factor on you for committing a greatest severity offense. You should expect to serve your entire sentence inside high-security penitentiaries. We built these prisons to hold inmates convicted of crimes like you committed.”

From his viewpoint, I was just another cow.

When developing a release plan, we must ask a different set of questions.

  • What questions can we ask to influence how people see us?

This brings me to the perspective of another book I read that influenced my thinking. That book, too, would prove valuable in thinking about the release plan we want to develop. I don’t recall the name of the book, but I remember the concept. It was called “The Johari Window.”

Johari’s Window:

With the “Johari Window,” people learn to understand their relationship with themselves and with others. Psychologists use the concept of the Johari Window in self-help groups. Anyone designing a release plan may want to give some consideration to the Johari Window.

Start by thinking of a quadrant with two columns and two rows, as follows:

 Known to SelfNot Known to Self
Known to Others  Open Arena   The open area is that part of our conscious self that we’re aware of and that is known to others. Everyone knows about our attitude, our behavior, our motivations, our values, our way of life.  Blind Spot   This area represents what others perceive in us, but that we do not think about when thinking of ourselves
Not Known to OthersFaçade In this area, we think about the way we think about ourselves, but our peers do not think about us. They may think we’re delusional, or that we’ve got an unrealistic perception of who we are.Unknown In this area, concepts may occur that we don’t know, and that others don’t know about us. Who knows what we will be in the days, months, years, or decades ahead?

Had I used such a concept before my fist team meeting, I may have engineered a better strategy to make my request. Perhaps I would have given some to questions that could have guided me in developing a more comprehensive release plan.

As participants work through the exercise of developing a release plan, I encourage them to think about the people they will meet in the future. For example, consider the person who sits in the role of Residential Reentry Manager. This person, typically, does not interact with people in prison. This person may never sit across the table from you. If you do not take appropriate steps, the only documents that will influence his opinion of you will be the documents that government officials or media reports will have written about you.

Let’s use Johari’s Window to consider questions in developing your release plan.

Open questions:

  • In what ways do you see yourself?
  • How or why would the RRM know this about you?
  • What steps can you take to help the RRM know this about you?

Blind questions:

  • What motivated the RRM to pursue his position?
  • How does the RRM define success?
  • In what ways does the RRM view you?

Façade questions:

  • When the RRM meets with others in his industry, how do they think about people like you?
  • What do you share in common with other people the RRM has to assess?
  • In what ways does the RRM think you’re unaware, or unrealistic about how you see yourself?

Unknown questions:

  • What influences in your future are neither you nor your RRM considering?
  • In what ways does your behavior show that you’re contemplating such unknowns?
  • What motivates your RRM to want to deny your request for special consideration?

These kinds of questions should drive the development of your release plan.

Regardless of whether you’re at the start of your journey through the criminal justice system, or whether you’re well into this path of serving your sentence, you are going to encounter people who do not know you. Yet they will make judgments about you based upon what government officials, or media reports have written to describe you.

The sooner a person starts to contemplate these realities, the more effective the person becomes in designing an effective release plan.

Zig Zigler and Criminogenic Needs:

Let’s go back to those six criminogenic needs that staff members in the correctional space learn about through their training. The authors of this book include Faye S. Taxman, a social scientist with whom I’ve interacted through my advocacy work. She co-authored a book called Tools of the Trade: A Guide to Incorporating Science into Practice. Social scientists and educators have developed volumes of work around this concept, and administrators use those tools to train the people who will assess whether you’re a worthy candidate for relief.

For that reason, it makes sense for to incorporate these concepts into the release plan you develop. To paraphrase another author, Zig Zigler, if you can figure out how to give others what they want, you can get a lot closer to getting what you want.

Low Self-Control:

The authors link crime to an inability to control one’s own behavior. People commit illegal acts when they do not have the ability to control their impulses. For example, a person who oversees financial accounts may be more inclined to embezzle or commit fraud if the person lacks self-control. Or a person may be more inclined to use drugs if the person cannot control himself.

  • In what ways does your release plan address the criminogenic need of low self-control?

Anti-Social Personality:

People with anti-social values do not associate with the values and norms of the broader community. They have the mindset of thinking they’re different, or that rules don’t apply to them. In prison, some people think that the best way to serve time is to forget about the world outside and to focus on their time in prison. They surround themselves with others who have “criminal thinking patterns.” As Shakespeare wrote, they’re the people who feel joy by ripping wings off of butterflies.

  • In what ways does your release plan address the criminogenic need of the anti-social personality?

Criminal Peers:

Stakeholders in the criminal justice system believe that when people with a criminal background associate with others who have a criminal background, the risk of criminal behavior escalates. People become susceptible to peer pressure. They break the law to fit in.

  • In what ways does your release plan address the criminogenic need of criminal peers?

Substance Abuse:

Staff members rely upon research to support their position that a relationship between substance abuse and criminal behavior. It’s the reason that members of Congress passed the 1994 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which ushered in the RDAP program. I remember when the Bureau of Prisons rolled out that program, and just as the case with the First Step Act, it took many years of advocacy and litigation before the BOP implemented the policy that exists today. To develop an effective release plan, we have to be vigilant in our thoughts about how administrators will view us.

  • In what ways does your release plan address the criminogenic need of substance abuse?

Dysfunctional Family:

Stakeholders believe that if a person comes from a family with a long history of criminal behavior, the person becomes more likely to engage in crime. People who come from such backgrounds may have grown up without positive role models. They may have never learned the concept of morals or values. They may not view criminal behavior as being destructive to society.

  • In what ways does your release plan address the criminogenic need of the dysfunctional family?

The questions above may prove helpful in designing your release plan.

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