Moral reconation therapy, originally developed for incarcerated populations, is now used beyond prison walls to treat traumatized war veterans, domestic violence perpetrators, and substance abusers. Over the past 40 years, this type of therapy has treated hundreds of thousands inmates with promising results, improving recidivism rates and giving individuals a new lease on life. Moral reconation therapy’s success does not come without legitimate opposition.
We must critically examine any therapy that is trademarked and marketed. Correctional Counseling, Inc. is the sole provider of certified moral reconation trainings. Those with a vested interest provide a significant portion of the supporting research. Accordingly, even with the best intentions, biases contaminate findings, and spoil results.
However, moral reconation therapy is a type of cognitive behavior therapy, which has largely been accepted as effective treatment for many emotional and behavioral disorders. Research for moral reconation therapy has shown lower recidivism rates than no therapy both in short and long term data.
History of Moral Reconation Therapy
Moral reconation therapy was developed in the 1980s by Drs. Greg Little and Ken Robinson and their colleagues at Correctional Counseling, Inc. Little and Robinson adapted treating prison inmates from the earlier work of Robert W. Wood and Richard S. Sweet. In the 1970’s Wood and Sweet developed a program for rehabilitating narcotic addicts within a psychiatric hospital.
Wood and Sweet dubbed their narcotic therapy as reconation therapy. The term conation is derived from René Descartes’ idea that there exists a geographical point in the person where mind and body fuse to create consciousness.
Benjamin Wolman, a Polish-American psychologist, defines conation as “the aspect of personality characterized by conscious, willing, strong, and purposeful action” (1988). Little and Robinson integrated the philosophy of purposeful action with Kohlberg’s moral reasoning, leading to the labeling of their therapy as Moral Reconation Therapy.
Little and Robinson believed that raising the level of moral reasoning was the essential factor in effective treatments.
In 1985, Shelby County Correctional Center implemented Little and Robinson’s therapy.
The programs, first implemented on small groups, immediately had promising results. The program was quickly expanded to general inmate populations. In 2008, moral reconation therapy was accredited as an “evidence-based” therapy.
As of today, several hundred studies have examined the effectiveness of MRT, many with positive associations between the treatment and lower recidivism rates. Today, moral reconation therapy is utilized in all 50 US states as well as in 9 countries across the globe. Moral reconation therapy has expanded its scope to include treatment to other mental and behavioral health patients. Some of the finding for the expansion into new fields of treatment are not as positive.
Seven Basic Areas of Focus
7 basic issues of treatment in moral reconation therapy are:
Confrontation and Assessment of Self (Beliefs, Attitudes, Behavior, and Defense Mechanisms)
During “the initial stages of treatment, the therapist seeks to identify the client’s assets and deficits.” This is a phase of self discovery. This is achieved through groups specifically designed to confront “every aspect of the personality.” Little and Robinson explain that clients becoming responsible for their treatments as well as becoming involved in the treatment of others is crucial to the success of moral reconation therapy (1988, p. 144).
“The self-evaluation and the gradual change of client’s beliefs, attitudes, and behavior is an ongoing process that continues throughout treatment” (p. 145).
Assessments of Current Relationships
Another crucial element to successful treatment is raising the clients awareness of their relationship to others. Relationships are a common theme in group and individual sessions. Relationship assessments evaluate damaged relationships and “require development of a specific plan to repair relationships or terminate them” (p. 145).
Reinforcement of Positive Behavior
Clients are provided opportunities to become involved in “positive activities and behaviors that foster good work habits, concern for others, and awareness” (p. 146). Basically, the program helps the client raise awareness to the connection between freedom and responsibility—the more responsible the behavior the more freedom is acquired.
Positive Identity Formation
This therapy aids clients in the self-actualization process. Therapists assist relieve the cognitive dissonance of conflicting conscious identities with the inner self. Patients develop positive identity “through the use of exercises, group activities, and individual sessions designed to penetrate defense mechanisms and explore the client’s inner self” (p. 146).
Enhancement of Self-Concept
Self-concept is one’s “picture of the self.” Our self concept is how we perceive ourselves. Researchers discovered an association between Low self-concepts and criminal offenders. Moral reconation therapy “specifically designs self-concept enhancing activities to increase self-esteem” (p. 147).
Decrease the Hedonistic Orientation and Increasing Delay of Gratification
Moral reconation therapy aims to decrease client’s decision making that relies heavily on present moment pleasure and pain consequences. Hedonistic (pleasure/pain) decision making is a central element to substance abuse. In many disrupted lives, people prioritize behaviors that offer an immediate reward over behaviors that are difficult in the moment.
Moral reconation therapy strives to decrease hedonistic orientation through promoting and requiring clients’ to participate in activities that “only offer internal gratification” (p. 147). Many of these activities are others related such as helping fellow clients complete therapy tasks or participation in various forms of public service.
This therapy increases clients’ ability to delay gratification by successful achievement of steps that require sustained, consistent effort. Effort required to accomplish new steps is increased as the client moves through therapy.
The Development of Higher Stages of Moral Reasoning
Moral reconation therapy theorizes that offenders and substance abusers suffer from low levels of moral development. The founders designed sessions and treatments to assist the client develop higher levels of moral reasoning. “Moral reconation therapy seeks to foster higher levels of moral reasoning as well as forge a link between moral behavior and moral reasoning” (p. 147).
What Does Moral Reconation Therapy Session Look like?
Facilitators deliver moral reconation treatment in a group format using a patient workbook, outlining 12 to 16 steps. Moral reconation therapy is “a structured program that uses a manual describing exercises and lessons directed at groups of 10-15 offenders” (2013, p. 4).
Moral Reconation sessions last 1-2 hours and typically meet twice a week. “To pass a step, participants complete homework assignments, which are designed to be appropriate for those with low reading levels.” Lastly, participants complete assignments between groups and then present them at the next group session for feedback (2022). On average, each step takes 2 sessions to complete.
In 2012, L. Myles Ferguson and J. Stephen Wormith conducted a mega-analysis of the effectiveness of moral reconation therapy. They measured correlation between the therapy and recidivism rates across 33 studies and 30, 259 offenders. They found that moral reconation therapy had a statistically significant positive impact on overall recidivism rates (2013, p. 1).
A 2022 study investigated the effectiveness of this therapy on justice involved adults in mental health residential treatment found that moral reconation therapy was not more affective in recidivism rates among those treated than those that received the usual care provided at the facility (2022).
Moral reconation therapy outside of prison walls needs more research to determine its effectiveness.
Who Benefits from Moral Reconation Therapy?
Many different populations can benefit from this therapy. The most researched populations benefitting from moral reconation therapy are those in the criminal justice system. According to research courts and prisons see fewer second-time substance abuse convictions, reducing the volume of people reentering the criminal justice system.
Moral reconation treatment is expanding beyond this population. However, studies examining the benefits on these new populations are mixed. Therefore, research doesn’t strongly support the claims. We need more research examining the impact of this therapy on these new populations.
Some of the people and settings that may benefit from this kind of therapy include:
- Drug Courts
- Parole and Probation
- Substance Abuse
- Domestic Violence Treatment
Opposition to Moral Reconation Therapy
We should acknowledge a few criticisms:
Since moral reconation therapy relies on the foundational structure of Kohlberg’s definition and steps of moral reasoning, This therapy style includes the weakness of Kohlberg’s theory; that is cultural relativism. “Kohlberg’s theory is mainly applicable within the limited context of Western culture” (2013, p. 22).
Different cultures can maintain fundamentally different conceptions of morality. Therefore, the development from one step to another in a predefined moral steps may be less effective in cultures that differ significantly from Western thought.
Freewill and Individualism
Moral reconation therapy’s focus on individual change may be seen as minimizing the role of external environments on individual behavior. Certainly, the individual must navigate their own course through their individual obstacles to development. However, a journey “marked by poverty, under resourced communities, racism, lack of family support, or easy availability of alcohol and drugs” may require a much different skill set and resources than someone in treatment with a more supportive environment.
Ferguson and Wormith suggest that “traditional notions of free will and personal autonomy” may be criticized “for placing too much emphasis on mental functions and processes, and too little on the social milieu within which an offender interacts on release (2013, p. 22).
A third criticism is that it is strongly rationalistic. Formal reasoning, a concept strongly embraced by moral reconation therapy, “is the means by which rational beings propose and consider explanations concerning cause and effect, true and false, what is good and bad, and right and wrong” (2013, p. 23). However, in many ways, we are not rational beings. Despite our ability to think, emotion often motivates behaviors. Accordingly, we only utilizing rational thought after the behavior to justify.
Affective-intensive processes (emotions) drive by many behaviors. For many observers, moral reconation therapy’s emphasis on moral reasoning dismisses the impact of emotion on behavior.
A Few Final Remarks
Moral reconation therapy shares many concepts with Western wellness beliefs. We treasure our autonomy and self-determination. In many ways, our beliefs in these self-endowments to direct our own lives leads to a different set of choices than if we believe in our vulnerability to external environments. Of course, these beliefs also have some drawbacks and biases that harm different segments of society.
The research numbers strongly suggest that this therapy does reduce recidivism and, therefore, the treatment is most likely effective under certain circumstances. Problems occur when individuals begin to tinker with programs to fit limited budgets or choose to change populations being treatment. When this is done, research numbers are not relevant. We must conduct additional studies that examine the new populations.
Blonigen, Daniel M., Michael A. Cucciare, Thomas Byrne, Paige M. Shaffer, Brenna Giordano, Jennifer S. Smith, Christine Timko, Joel Rosenthal, and David Smelson (2022) A Randomized Controlled Trial of Moral Reconation Therapy to Reduce Risk for Criminal Recidivism Among Justice-Involved Adults in Mental Health Residential Treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 90.5 (2022): 413-426.
Ferguson, L., & Wormith, J. (2013). A Meta-Analysis of Moral Reconation Therapy. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 57(9), 1076-1106.
Little, G., & Robinson, K. (2016). Effects of Moral Reconation Therapy upon Moral Reasoning, Life Purpose, and Recidivism among Drug and Alcohol Offenders . Psychological Reports, 64(1), 83-90.
Little, Gregory L., and Kenneth D. Robinson (1988) Moral Reconation Therapy: A Systematic Step-by-Step Treatment System for Treatment Resistant Clients Psychological Reports 62.1 (2016): 135-151.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Developmental Theory. Flourishing Life Society. Published 6-11-2022. Accessed 6-18-2022).