Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “old rule” and “criminal thinking errors”

The Atlantic’s July 2015 article “Letter to My Son” is excerpted from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling Between the World and Me.  In it Coates recounts for his son what it was like growing up in crack epidemic-era Baltimore where “everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns,” and knowing his own grandfather and two uncles had died violent deaths as young men (Coates, 2015).  And so there came to be what Coates describes as the “old rule” that any boy’s fight was his every friend’s fight too and that “they all took their beating together” no matter the odds.  In such a world being able to count on that rule in the face of impending violence might well feel like, in fact might well be, a matter of life and death.  Knowing of such a rule and the reasons for it might also be relevant in assessing “criminal thinking errors” as the sole causes or motivation for urban violence as is assumed in most juvenile justice clinical treatment programs.     

Urban criminal violence the result of perpetrators’ “criminal thinking errors”

An urban adolescent from a violent, crime-ridden neighborhood—call him Jamal—is involved in a police incident for participating in a street brawl. Jamal has been captured on cell phone video joining the fight of a friend already in progress and attacking the other youth in the original two-person altercation. There is no possible argument of self-defense. Without question this assaultive behavior constitutes a criminal offense. And in many if not most of the residential juvenile justice programs to which Jamal would likely be sent as a result, the explanation for Jamal’s criminal violence is his having a criminal personality and his acting on  one or more of a specific list of fifty-two “criminal thinking errors.”[1]

What is criminal thinking?

“Criminal Personality Theory” is the product of research by two criminologist-psychologists named Samenow and Yochelson which they presented in their now classic three-volume work, The Criminal Personality (1976, 1977, 1986). In it Samenow and Yochelson identified fifty-two “criminal thinking errors,” all of which they claim are the characteristic thinking of an offender with a deeply ingrained criminal person- ality. Samenow and Yochelson argue that one or more of those fifty-two thinking errors exhaustively explains any given criminal behavior. They insist that no other theory or explanation is needed or relevant, and they specifically rule out social, environmental, or economic influences (Dienstbier, 1977). Indeed, as Samenow says, “The environment does not cause crime” (Samenow, 2014).[2]

How mutual defense was the duty of friends in one violent Baltimore childhood

In the 2015 Atlantic excerpt from Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, titled “Letters to My Son,” Coates describes how, growing up during Baltimore’s mid-’80s crack epidemic, he and his friends were taught  to defend each other in the event that one of them was attacked as a matter of honor.  Given Coates’ and his friends’ rational fear of their city’s ever-present, ever-threatening street violence it is hard to overstate the significance to these boys of their being able to count on, or not, their friends fulfilling that responsibility in their inevitable next encounter with physical threat. Coates says:

I think now of the old rule that held that should a boy be set upon in someone else’s chancy hood, his friends must stand with him, and they must all take their beating together.  I now know that within this edict lay the key to all living. None of us were promised to end the fight on our feet, fists raised to the sky. We could not control our enemies’ number, strength, or weaponry. Sometimes you just caught a bad one. But whether you fought or ran, you did it together, because that is the part that was in our control. What we must never do is willingly hand over our own bodies or the bodies of our friends. That was the wisdom: We knew we did not lay down the direction of the street, but despite that, we could—and must—fashion the way of our walk (emphasis added here and above),  (Coates, 2015).

The power of those rules for survival to almost compel violence 30 years later–and those rules’ name

The “old rule” Coates describes in his biographical anecdote is actually an example of a comprehensive theory of Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson called “the code of the street” based on his fourteen year study of a single Philadelphia neighborhood.  Coates himself used this term in a New York Times op-ed  “Beyond the Code of the Street” (Coates, 2015).  Here Coates’ recounts how in 2015, despite being 30 years older than his Baltimore child self, he and two friends had to consciously resist “Code of the Street” programming to respond violently when they were confronted by a drunk racist looking for a fight one night on a New York city street.

Now let’s revisit Jamal’s rushing to join that fight in progress and his criminal assault on the attacker of his friend.

How clear now that “criminal thinking errors” can be the sole or even a good explanation for Jamal’s violent act?

Let’s assume Jamal was brought up to follow a similar “old rule” of mutual defense and that in joining his friend’s fight Jamal was consciously acting out this specific, overtly taught programming.  That being true, and in the absence of other information, then is anything whatsoever gained in understanding this specific violent episode by asserting Jamal’s having a criminal personality or his acting on some other additional set of criminal thinking errors?  Moreover, in this specific, narrow, and socially dysfunctional context—and irrespective of whatever else must still be said of it–isn’t Jamal’s consciously acting to defend his friend at the risk of his own beating also arguably an adaptive and rational act of courage and loyalty?

As an adult Coates now seems to understand “the old rule’s” compelling of friends’ commitment to mutual defense as about much more their individual or collective physical survival.  He says: “We knew we did not lay down the direction of the street, but despite that, we could—and must—fashion the way of our walk” (Coates, 2015). Coates suggests here that he and his friends’ mutual commitment to fight for each other was also a powerful assertion of their sense of agency and a basis for self-respect in an environment in which they otherwise felt powerless in the face of constant threat.

Whatever the reasons for the “old rule” it is still a problem

But let’s be clear:  To acknowledge the existence and explanatory power of “the old rule” or any other mandate of the Code of the Street is neither to defend it nor to excuse any crime committed in following it.  If a typical effect of operating under the influence of the Code of the Street is frequent and often lethal criminal violence or any other type of crime, then that influence is a problem at both a social and individual level. And insofar as such influence predisposes Jamal to violent behavior then that influence has by some means to be countered. Much of Jamal’s personal behavior code needs to be reprogrammed.

But for that to happen Jamal must sincerely believe that that change is necessary, understand why that change is necessary, and know how to own and sustain his change process long enough for it to result in hardwired lifetime behavior change. That means Jamal needs as far as possible to sincerely buy into every aspect of the long and difficult change process.

How likely then is that buy-in for Jamal in a criminal thinking-based treatment program? He knows he joined his friend’s fight in conscious compliance with an explicitly taught behavior code he believes to be critical to his physical survival. But the only explanatory construct he will likely be permitted to entertain for that behavior is on a list of fifty-two criminal thinking errors that explicitly deny the relevance of socio-cultural factors in criminal behavior. And any attempt by Jamal to argue to the contrary will be cited as evidence of resistance to treatment and as yet further proof of his criminality-distorted thinking processes.

Is it time for a new approach?

What if his treatment program instead helped Jamal understand and see his cultural programming and how its rules and their consequences have predisposed him to crime and his current loss of freedom?  What if Jamal could be showed how the “old rule” and other guiding principles of the Code of the Street fail in two ways:  They actually make Jamal and everyone else in his neighborhood less safe and they make him less able to function effectively in mainstream society?  Jamal could stop being told that his thinking was criminal and that he was bad and instead be shown how his thinking was disempowering and making him less competent to effectively engage on his own behalf in the larger world.   

Ta-Nehisi Coates on why the Code of the Street, outside of its context, is “ridiculous,” “suicidal,” and immoral.

In this scenario Jamal would begin to see for himself how the Code of the Street comes complete with its own set of cultural context-specific “criminal thinking errors.” But Jamal doesn’t so much need to be taught a new list of thinking errors as be helped to recognize the hitherto unacknowledged rules predisposing him to criminality and violence he was taught and saw modeled in a community ethos shaped by the Code of the Street.

This new approach would improve upon conventional criminal thinking error-based treatment in several ways: 1) Jamal can more easily see and accept the disempowering consequences of the Code of the Street once the cultural realities of his community and the Code’s rationality within that dysfunctional context are acknowledged.  2) Jamal would no longer be made to feel stupid for his resistance to identifying criminal thinking errors to explain behavior that the Code of the Street defines as—in its context—either normal or necessary.  3) He will stop being told such resistance is only further proof of his criminality.  4) Now that Jamal has experience with behavioral rules that can be assessed and rejected as disempowering, he can be helped to rationally assess and choose new ones commended to him in his treatment process that empower him and expand his options.

Perhaps the most important benefit of this new approach could be its offering Jamal a more compelling motivation for pursuing change. Rather than viewing the intended outcome of his enforced treatment as his becoming a better and less dangerous man by the standards of mainstream society, its objective now is to help Jamal become a smarter and more powerful man in pursuit of his own best interests now rightly understood.  It is, arguably, the difference between treatment as an instrument of judgment and as an effector of empowerment. And just maybe this smarter, more powerful Jamal’s newly more intelligent pursuit of his own interest will just happen to better align with and promote the best interests of his community and larger society as well.

And we can find this new approach, where?

The first Code of the Street-informed curricula and intervention programs are only just becoming available.  In fact, only two such curricula are currently known to exist; my own Take Charge and Zombie Resistance Training PETS curriculum modules and Barrett and Kupersmidt’s Fight Navigator anger management and fight avoidance program [3].  Both programs need further development—which is either planned or under way in both cases—to realize their potential as comprehensive intervention programs. It is therefore far too early to make an evidence-based case for substituting Code of the Street-informed programs for current treatment models—and especially any of the few truly evidence-based cognitive behavioral programs such as Aggression Replacement Training.

But surely it is long past time to start including Code of the Street-informed cultural training in staff development programs and to start pilot projects that provide supplemental Code of the Street-based cultural insight to (ostensibly) culturally neutral (and often, therefore, dubiously relevant) but otherwise effective clinical programs. This cultural insight would likely be most clinically relevant if training demonstrated its powerful effect when appropriately applied in Motivational Interviewing, client disciplinary “processing” and CBT-based programs and client interactions.

Jamal, and the tens of thousands of juvenile offenders he represents, are waiting.


Coates, Ta-Nahesi. “Letters to My Son.” The Atlantic, 4 July 2015 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/tanehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me/397619/  Accessed May 13. 2018

Dienstbier, Richard A. (1977). “Exceptions to the Rule: A Review of The Criminal Personality, Volume I: A Profile for Change.” Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/psychfacpub/193 [downloadable PDF, pp. 3–4]. Also available from Law and Human Behavior, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 207–16. Copyright ©1977 Plenium Publishing Corporation/Springer Verlag. http://www.springerlink.com/content/1573-661X/

Samenow (2014). Inside the Criminal Mind, ibook edition, p. 40. Accessed from Mack, Abigail J., (2017, October 5). “The ‘Criminal Mind’: Discourses of Mental Health and Crime Part 1.” https://medicalhealthhumanities.com/2017/10/05/the-criminal-mind-discourses-of-mental-health-and-crime-part-1/

[1] I have yet to find hard numbers on this and am still attempting to document the prevalence of treatment modalities built on Criminal Personality Theory in U.S. juvenile justice facilities. One reason it is hard to determine this is that Criminal Personality Theory is not a trademarked intervention program and no program under that or similar names is listed as an evidence-based program in a criminal justice EBP registry site such as The Office of Juvenile Justice’s Model Programs Guide or Crimesolutions.gov.  The Criminal Personality model seems to be more often a framework model built into more comprehensive intervention programs marketed under other names.  I am attempting to identify those programs and their  EBP status where possible.  However, the entrenched status of Samenow and Yochelson’s theories in corrections clinical practice could not be better illustrated then by a 2018 textbook on corrections by eminent criminologists and professors of criminal justice Mary Stohr and Anthony Walsh.  In Corrections: From Research, to Policy, to Practice they explicitly conflate confronting criminal thinking errors and specifically those of Samenow and Yochelson with CBT.  See this post for a detailed discussion of this. [Stohr, M. and Walsh, A. (2018) Corrections: From Research, to Policy, to Practice. Thousand Oaks, California:  Sage Publications.]

[2] Of course, environment alone and as the sole variable cannot cause criminality.  See thecodeofthestreet.net page “The Criminal Thinking Problem” for further discussion of the Samenow quote and how non-credibly simplistic and reductionist Samenow’s argument is here.  It is further noted how frequently he and Yochelson use this and similar arguments in making the case for their Criminal Personality Theory model.

[3] As neither curriculum explicitly references the Code of the Street in the curriculum content and neither are exclusively targeted for urban or juvenile corrections markets I describe them as “Code of the Street-informed,” (as opposed to explicitly “Code of the Street-based”).

Curt Byers’ Major Project History

  • 2017-2018 — As the first Director of Vocational Services for suburban Philadelphia disability services nonprofit The Arc Alliance, I opted to launch services with PA Office of Vocational Rehabilitation’s new (as of 2016) PETS (Pre-Employment Transition Services) program for high school special education programs for which I designed the two PETS-specific workplace readiness training programs. Both were approved for OVR-funded PETS workplace readiness and self-advocacy training respectively.

2009-2014 — Founder and part-time CEO of SymBionyx, the for-profit successor to the SymBionyx Foundation, and a remote disability services platform technology start-up created to commercialize the output of the Messiah College Collaboratory WERCware project team (see following) through the development of its first commercial Tymer app product, and its pilot project deployment with Goodwill Industries Keystone Region and recruitment and hand-off of day-to-day management to a full time professional manager CEO and CIO based out of offices in suburban D.C.

2007-2014: Leadership of Messiah College College Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research WERCware project. In response to my clients with autism’s post high school challenges in first employment I invented Wireless-Enabled Remote Co-presence (W.E.R.C.)–embodied in WERCware®, embodied in products and services as WERCware–to enable remote job coaching support of people with autism and other cognitive disabilities. I founded the SymBionyx Foundation to partnered with a Messiah College’s Collaboratory student team and faculty from the engineering, computer science and education departments to develop a succession of WERCware technologies. Initial development and proof of concept projects with the Capital Area Intermediate Unit and United Cerebral Palsy of Central PA were funded by thee grants from PA state agencies totaling $65K.

The final Collaboratory WERCware project resulted from my observation that mothers of my clients with autism were detecting impending “meltdowns” in rising stress in their child’s voice. I proposed development of an artificial neural network (ANN)-based smartphone app that could. 1) recognize rising stress and an impending “meltdown” in a user’s voice, 2) correlate voice data with input from a wearable biometric monitor and, 3) trigger an alert, automated intervention script, or summon assistance as per defined escalation criteria. The final WERCware team successfully trained an ANN to 85% effectiveness in recognizing voice stress and were developing interface software for both the Affectiva Q-Sensor (for galvanic skin response) and Emotive’s wearable EEG reader in the final year of the project.

2001-2003: As an independent consultant I researched, created and packaged a wireless broadband company concept for aggregating a leading independent wireless broadband provider in each of 20-30 mid-size markets into an integrated network that is then pre-configured for a roll-up acquisition of each provider in a single transaction. That concept became JetStream Broadband, an Orlando, Florida-based commercial wireless broadband and Internet Service Provider when I “sold” a majority interest in the company concept to recruit its funder/CEO, create value for my minority position and secure my own employment as its VP of Business Development.

1996-1999: I became the 8th hire and a Director of Business Development for Evangelical market-targeted Web portal Crosswalk.com only after management agreed to change from a subscription business model to one based on top-of-web page advertising that came to be called “banner ads”– with which business model Crosswalk raised $90 million in its 1997 IPO—ticker symbol AMEN. I transferred from business development to content production to become founding channel producer and editor of a new Spiritual Life Channel. I later added running Crosswalk’s volunteer chat monitor program to my editorial portfolio and for which I designed its training program and hired and managed the chat program’s only full time employee.

1997: Lead consultant and project manager for a team of academic consultant specialists conducting an analysis and making recommen-dations for a cooperative model online learning platform for the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities, a trade association of 92 Christian colleges and universities.  Christian University Globalnet was launched in 1998.

My team’s report and recommendations as presented to representatives of 32 of the CCCU’s 92 member institutions. I opened the consultation with an initial overview and high level summary presentation on the project.

1996-1997: Planning coordination consultant for the first international Internet Evangelism Consultation, sponsored by the Billy Graham Center’s Institute of Evangelism

I was retained by project management contractor Christianity Today Inc. to be the sole paid planning committee member for the nine months leading up to the first international Internet Evangelism Consultation, sponsored by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. The primary purpose of the Consultation was to both educate and assess, over the course of three days, the perceived need for and interest in creating an ongoing internet evangelism organization–in effect, a trade association–and if affirmed, secure the endorsement of its creation by consultation attendees and election of charter officers. For this and other reasons, participating organizations were required to send either a CEO or COO/EVP along with their senior internet operations staffer. Every invited major player organization attended. I delivered one of the opening plenary addresses. Consultation attendees strongly affirmed the founding of the Internet Evangelism Coalition.

1996: I wrote Life With God: First Steps, with Helen Johns, as part 1 of a four part Life With God introductory curriculum on the Christian faith and membership in The Brethren in Christ Church, for the BIC publishing arm, Evangel Press. The project was offered to me after Evangel Press’ editors’ review of the UK Live Program material. First Steps is effectively a complete rewrite and adaptation into conventional print format (i.e. prose vs. image-centric) of LIVE Program’s approach and core concepts for the U.S. market.

1992: UK publication of the LIVE Programme, by a leading UK church media publisher. The LIVE Programme was the first comprehensive, multiple media format, family metaphor-based introduction to Christianity curriculum and local church outreach program in the UK. It was, for its time, unique in its featuring of non-white ethnicities in a highly visual presentation format chosen for an urban target demographic for whom English was likely a second language. I proposed and secured the endorsements of eight of the U.K.’s highest profile U.K. evangelical church leaders in the bottom half of the promotional piece below.)

With graphic designer and London multicultural church co-pastor, Norman Savine.


Walters Eight Cognitive Thinking Patterns model supersedes Samenow and Yochelson’s Criminal Personality Theory but still stigmatizes all criminal behavior resulting from as irrational (at best.)

Walters’ Eight Cognitive Thinking Patterns model supersedes Samenow and Yochelson’s Criminal Personality Theory but still cannot conceptualize socialization to behavior that is locally adaptive given a violence-prone, highly dysfunctional social environment

Mandracchia, Morgan’s 2007 paper “Inmate Thinking Patterns: An Empirical Investigation” details the history and interrelationship of Walter’s eight cognitive patterns model, based on his research using his PICTS assessment instrument, and Samenow and Yochelson’s Criminal Personality Theory and its 52 Criminal Thinking Errors. Unless otherwise noted, all citations below are from this paper.

Walters (1996) developed eight cognitive patterns to describe the criminal thinking process that both builds on and is intended to supplant Samenow and Yochelson’s model and its 52 criminal thinking errors. Walters’ eight thinking styles are:

  • (a) mollification: rationalizing behavior by placing blame on external factors,
  • (b) cutoff: quickly disregarding thoughts that deter from crime,
  • (c) entitlement: permitting criminal behavior by a special privileged self-attribution,
  • (d) power orientation: the need for utmost control over the environment and others,
  • (e) sentimentality: doing something good to offset one’s negative feelings about one’s behavior,
  • (f) “superoptimism”: confidence in one’s ability to evade the typical negative outcome of crime,
  • (g) cognitive indolence: using mental “short cuts” instead of using more developed and thoughtful mental strategies, and
  • (h) discontinuity: lack of perseverance and reliability in both behavior and thinking (Mandracchia et al.,  1030-1031)

Three of the Walters’ eight cognitive patterns are his own. (“Mollification, entitlement, and cognitive indolence were formed on the basis of Walters’ clinical experience (Walters, 1990, 2001).” The other five are derived from what Walters deemed to be the most salient of Samenow’s fifty-two thinking errors, specifically:  “Sentimentality and superoptimism were adopted directly from Yochelson and Samenow’s theory; power orientation consisted of a combination of Yochelson and Samenow’s conceptualization of the thinking patterns “zero state” and “power thrust”; whereas cutoff and discontinuity were generalized versions of Yochelson and Samenow’s descriptions of the thinking patterns “cutoff” and “fragmentation thinking errors,” respectively (Walters, 1990, 2001).”  (Mandracchia et al.,  1031)

Walter’s model and his Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking Styles (PICTS)

“To investigate these cognitive patterns empirically, Walters (2001) developed the Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking Styles (PICTS). In the first published study of the PICTS, sufficient reliability and early validity was demonstrated to support continued investigation and development of the instrument (Walters, 1995).”  (Mandracchia et al.,  1031).  

Walters still characterizes as all criminal behavior as only “self-indulgent” and “irrational”

Walters’ model still cannot conceptualize the possibility posited by Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street, that some criminal behavior of offenders from high crime, violence-prone distressed urban communities is the product of both explicit and unconscious socialization and is locally adaptive and survival-promoting in its specific highly dysfunctional social context.  

As per Mandracchia et al.:  “These patterns represent the notion that criminal thought enables decisions that are self-indulgent, rash, interpersonally invasive, and contrary to societal standards. As such, these thinking patterns are irrationally based, unorganized, and subjective and serve the desires for immediate gratification.” [1030] 

All of this may be descriptive of some of the thinking and resulting behavior of many if not most juvenile offenders. But as a description of the thinking patterns and behavior of every criminal act by every juvenile offender from distressed urban communities–and in particular, those behaviors explicitly taught and modeled as per The Code of the Street, these characterizations are obviously incorrect.  Certainly the “old rule” described by Ta-Nehisi Coates that “we all take our beating together” and which requires every kid seeing any kid from his neighborhood being assaulted to join the fight in defense of his friend–and so commit criminal assault–is neither irrational, unorganized or subjective. (Which, again doesn’t make it moral, or exempt it from criminal sanction, or even in the true longer term best interest of the kid in question.)

The ways the Code of the Street predisposes to criminality are not mutually exclusive with factors from other criminogenic models as explanations for criminal behavior.

Of course, it is entirely possible and even likely that socialization to a Code of the Street that is adaptive behavior in a highly dysfunctional local context and which justifies and even requires criminal behavior is anything but mutually exclusive with other factors highlighted in the more conventional criminological models as predisposing to criminality.  Certainly, Walters’ cognitive pattern of “power orientation” would be a likely outcome or concomitant factor to a code-required physical response to disrespectful treatment. Living out the Code of the Street on a daily basis may have the effect of causing or requiring the cognitive immaturity and/or egocentrism that are two of the three factors posited by Mandracchia et al.

Walters’ critique of Samenow and Yochelson:

“Walters criticized Yochelson and Samenow’s conceptualization of criminal thinking errors, identifying; a) insufficient operationalization, b) difficulty of empirical evaluation, c) lack of generalizability and applicability, and, d) lack of recognition of environmental influences on erroneous thinking as specific weaknesses of their theory.”  (enumeration mine:  Mandracchia et al.,  1030).  Mere listing of these concerns–most or all of which have been identified in previous scathing assessments of Samenow and Yochelson’s work–does not adequately convey the degree to which this is a devastating critique.

What Walters concedes to be significant of Samenow and Yochelson’s work and which he incorporates into his own model

 In spite of these criticisms, Walters (1990) based his conceptualization of criminal thinking on what he deemed as Yochelson and Samenow’s major contributions to a cohesive theory of the criminal lifestyle. These contributions included the ideas that (a) criminals’ antisocial behaviors were based on free choice, (b) continued criminal thinking is the primary expression of free choice, and (c) developing a sense of responsibility for one’s own behavior was necessary to enable change.  (Mandracchia et al.,  1031)

Critique and consensus re: questions about the statistical validity of Walters model:

After what appeared to be very strong validation of Walter’s eight factor model by his own early research, the validity of an eight factor model has been called into question, in part by some of Walter’s own research.   Current thinking is leaning towards either a two factor, (proactive and reactive) (Disabato, 2015) or three factor, (Control, Cognitive Immaturity, and Egocentrism) model. (Mandracchia et al.)

Disabato, D. J., Folk, J. B., Wilson, J., Barboza, S., Daylor, J., & Tangney, J. (2015). Psychometric validation of a simplified form of the PICTS for low-reading level populations. Journal of psychopathology and behavioral assessment38(3), 456-464.

Mandracchia, J. T., Morgan, R. D., Garos, S., & Travis Garland, J. (2007). Inmate Thinking Patterns: An Empirical Investigation. Criminal Justice and Behavior34(8), 1029–1043. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854807301788

Criminal justice textbook conflates CBT and confronting criminal thinking errors

Stohr and Walsh’s 2018  textbook Corrections: From Research, to Policy to Practice explicitly conflates confronting criminal thinking errors with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Samenow and Yochelson’s Criminal Personality Theory and/or  juvenile justice treatment programs based on confronting clients with their criminal thinking errors  are  widely thought to build on a well research validated evidence-based practice.  This is true despite the fact that no treatment program with Criminal Personality or Criminal Thinking Errors or any combination thereof in its title appears in registries of evidence-based practice.

But a 2018 textbook by distinguished criminologists and professors of criminal justice Mary Stohr and Anthony Walsh may explain why this perception exists and why a focus on Samenow and Yochelson’s criminal thinking errors are so deeply entrenched in corrections, both adult and juvenile.

In the chapter titled “Correctional Programming and Treatment” (Chapter 11) of Stohr and Walsh’s 2018 textbook Corrections: From Research, to Policy, to Practice, the authors could not more explicitly conflate confronting criminal thinking errors with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy then in the CBT section  title and its first two sentences:

Chapter 11 title:    “Correctional Programming and Treatment”

Section title:   “CBT and Criminal Thought”:

First two sentences following:    “The first lesson of CBT is that criminals think differently from the rest of us.  Yochelson and Samenow (1976) and Samenow (1999) pioneered treatment theories based on challenging thinking errors when they realized that modalities based on “outside circumstances” don’t work.”  (Stohr & Walsh, 2018, p. 272).

It is noteworthy that CBT and Motivational Interviewing are the only two evidence-based practices cited in this textbook.  One would never guess that the specific application of CBT in corrections treatment programs that builds on the work of Samenow and Yochelson to focus on confronting “Criminal Thinking Errors” is based on deeply flawed and non-replicated research that has never achieved evidence-based status.

Stohr, M. and Walsh, A. (2018) Corrections: From Research, to Policy, to Practice. Thousand Oaks, California:  Sage Publications.

Gabbidon’s Thesis and Adverse Childhood Experiences

Thesis of Gabbidon and Unnerver’s Theory of African American Offending (ToAAO)   

Summarize and cite thesis of G&U’s ToAAIO 

Gabbidon’s thesis may well be supported by research on Adverse or traumatic Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  Certainly an implication of ACEs theory would be a continuation  into adulthood of traumatic racism related experiences in childhood.  But there is no reason to believe stress and trauma’s contribution to “allostatic load” (described following)  is limited to childhood experiences and doubtless there is research to the contrary.   If the cumulative effects of major racism-related trauma and/or the cumulative effect of daily racially motivated micro-aggression constitutes a form of trauma then ACEs theory and research can likely be cited in support of Gabbidon’s ToAAO.    


Allostasis refers to the way the brain and body respond to challenges or stresses: by reacting, adapting and then recovering. But if the stress is extreme, negative and unrelenting, the brain and body pay a price. That accumulated wear-and-tear, called allostatic load, can cause chemical imbalances, accelerate certain diseases, and even alter brain structures. Genetics, early brain development, the social and physicalenvironment, diet and other behaviors can all influence a person’s allostatic load.

Learn more at www.macses.ucsf.edu/research/allostatic/allostatic.php


When children are exposed to multiple traumatic events, such as ongoing physical or sexual abuse, witnessing family or community violence, or separation from family members, they may suffer complex trauma, with deep and long-lasting effects on their ability to think, learn and relate to others. Research has shown that the more ACEs a person has, the higher his or her risk for problems including addiction, chronic physical conditions, depression and anxiety, self-harming behaviors, and other psychiatric disorders.

Learn more at www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/complex-trauma

Voluminous research on Racism-caused Trauma


Critical Research Influences on Cultural Factors in Non-coercive Adversary Behavior Management

Elijah Anderson
Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies at Yale University

Anderson developed the Code of the Street model out of 14 years of ethno-graphic research and sociological analysis of a Philadelphia neighborhood.  His writing explains how how racism, the deteriorating economic base of inner city neighborhoods  and resulting social dysfunction have given rise to a world view and behavioral schema  Anderson calls the Code of the Street. His research and writing explains both both the adaptive rationality of the Code of the Street and how it accounts for many of the social and behavioral dysfunctions of communities and individuals socialized as per the Code of the Street.  The Code of the Street model has been validated and extended in over 25 years of research in multiple academic disciplines.  

Jamie Fader
Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Temple University

Fader brings Anderson’s Code of the Street concept to bear on the her analysis of how Samenow and Yochelson’s Criminal Personality Theory, (which is virtually canonical in criminal justice theory and juvenile justice clinical treatment) uniquely problematic for African American juvenile offenders socialized to the Code of the Street, especially as applied in practice in most residential juvenile justice facilities.  

Both Fader’s chapter in the Anderson’s 2008 Against the Wall and her 2013 book Falling Back: Incarceration and Transitions to Adulthood among Urban Youth are both “based on over three years of ethnographic research with black and Latino males on the cusp of adulthood and incarcerated at a rural reform school designed to address “criminal thinking errors” among juvenile drug offenders.”

James Barrett and Janice Kupersmidt
Havard Medical School and CEO / Senior Research Scientist Innovative Research and Training, respectively

James Barrett is an Instructor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School.  However, it is his work with youth in Cambridge, Massachusetts schools and those involved with the Cambridge Police Department that is most relevant to this project.  While teaching cognitive behavioral anger management Dr. Barrett kept getting push back from African American youth clients from tough inner city neighborhoods.  He concluded this was due to their socialization by a widely shared survival-oriented ethos Elijah Anderson calls the Code of the Street. 
Barrett partnered with research and clinical child psychologist Janice Kupersmidt, developer/author of multiple evidence-based intervention curricula and programs, in developing the Fight Navigator program. Fight Navigator  takes account of the Code of the Street in helping urban youth identity strategies for avoiding violent conflict that doesn’t cost them peer respect or undermine their street rep. Fight Navigator is arguably the first and currently only other known anger management and violence prevention program/curriculum that exemplifies Non-coercive Adversary Behavior Management, though its development predates NABM’s conceptualization by several years.  

Ta-Nehisi Coates  
Author, journalist, educator and comic book writer, (Marvel Comics’ Black Panther and Captain America)

As profound as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ is as a commentator on and analyst of issues relevant to this project, his primary value in terms of NAMB curriculum content is as a source of  compellingly written biographical anecdotes in his books and articles that illustrate theoretical concepts and content drawn from academic research.  Coates’ is only the first of what will become many African American stories and voices enlisted to communicate and illustrate Non-coercive Adversary Behavior Management curricula content to urban youth out of a shared community context.  However, few other voices can match  Coates’ combination of literary and theoretical heft and the pop culture  cachet as a writer of superhero comic books.  

Coates’ Between the World and Me was a  #1 New York Times bestseller , a finalist for the National Book Award.  Coates is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow and  has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations

Hip Hop on The Code — “brothers want rep”

The first line of Hip Hop duo Gang Starr’s “Code of the Streets” is a perfect vernacular expression of the thesis premise of Anderson’s Code of the Street.  Its next three lines capture the world experienced by “the young ones” shaped by that ethos…

Take this for example young brothers want rep
Cause in the life they’re living, you can’t half step
It starts with the young ones doing crime for fun
And if you ain’t down, you’ll get played out son

Gang Starr released “Code of the Streets” on their Hard to Earn LP on March 8, 1994.  The reading public first encountered the term “Code of the Streets” in Anderson’s article of the same name in the May, 1994 issue of The Atlantic.  So it is apparently pure coincidence that the first mainstream article about-and titled-the Code of the Streets was on the newstands one of the eight weeks the first ever hip hop song by the same name was on its way to its peak position of 33 on the Billboard’s Hot Hip Hop chart.

The rest of the lyrics serve well as ethnographic data illustrating the mindset of a Code of the Street-shaped adolescent living in the kind of “hood” which gave rise to the Code.

Take this for example young brothers want rep
Cause in the life they’re living, you can’t half step
It starts with the young ones doing crime for fun
And if you ain’t down, you’ll get played out son
So let’s get a car, you know, a fly whip
Get a dent, pull a screwdriver, and be off quick
With a dope ride, yeah, and a rowdy crew
We can bag us a Benz and an Audi, too
Even a jeep or a van, goddamn, we’re getting ours, yo
Take a trip up the strip, and be like stars so
It doesn’t matter if the cops be scoping
They can’t do jack, that’s why a young brother’s open
To do anything, anywhere, anyplace
Buckwild in another court case
It’s the code of the streets
They might say we’re a menace to society
But at the same time I say “Why is it me?”
Am I the target, for destruction?
What about the system, and total corruption?
I can’t work at no fast-food joint
I got some talent, so don’t you get my point?
I’ll organize some brothers and get some crazy loot
Selling D-R-U-G-S and clocking dollars, troop
Cause the phat dough, yo, that suits me fine
I gotta have it so I can leave behind
The mad poverty, never having always needing
If a sucker steps up, then I leave him bleeding
I gotta get mine, I can’t take no shorts
And while I’m selling, here’s a flash report
Organized crime, they get theirs on the down low
Here’s the ticket, wanna bet on a horse show?
You gotta be a pro, do what you know
When you’re dealing with the code of the streets
Nine times out of ten I win, with the skills I be weilding
Got the tec one dealing, let me express my feelings
Guru has never been one to play a big shot
It’s just the styles I got that keep my mic hot
Anf fuck turning my back to the street scene
It gives me energy, so Imma keep fiends
Coming, just to get what I’m selling
Maybe criminal or felon dropping gems on your melon
So keep abreast to the GangStarr conquest
Underground ruffnecks, pounds of respect
I’ve never been afraid to let loose my speech
My brothers know I kick the code of the streets
Songwriters: Robert L. Russell / Keith Elam / Chris E. Martin
Code of the Streets lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group, The Royalty Network Inc.

The Code of the Street and Reentry

This page is currently just a place to post research notes on this topics.

The problem for reentry of an exclusive focus on CBT techniques without any reference to cultural contextual issues that are studiously avoided in most juvenile corrections programs

From:  Juvenile Corrections in the Era of Reform: A Meta-synthesis of Qualitative Studies  in  the August 2017 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology  

Once they return, young people must navigate a minefield of challenges to maintaining their commitment to law-abiding lives. The researchers found that in their almost absolute focus on cognitive behavioral programming without attention to issues surrounding residential and employment services, many of the residential placement facilities studied are ill-prepared to tackle the structural issues that youth face, particularly in urban communities. These young people, who are disproportionately youth of color, are more likely than their non-institutionalized counterparts to lack the hard and soft skills that make them attractive job candidates (Inderbitzin, 2009). They face significant barriers to finding steady employment that pays more than minimum wage, including racial discrimination, lack of access to job networks, and spatial disconnection from well-paying jobs (Fader, 2013; Nurse, 2010). These deficits are rarely addressed during their period of confinement. Many experience pressure to get a job, but use a “scattershot” approach to applying for positions. Once they find work, they discover that daily conditions involve a lack of respect from customers and supervisors (Nurse, 2010).


Sankofa, J & Cox, A. & Fader, J.  & Inderbitzin, M & Abrams, L.& M. Nurse, A.. (2017). Juvenile Corrections in the Era of Reform: A Meta-Synthesis of Qualitative Studies. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 62. 0306624X1772707. 10.1177/0306624X17727075.

Code Switching




Here is the Encyclopedia Britannica’s helpful definition:

Code-switching, process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. Sociolinguistssocial psychologists, and identity researchers are interested in the ways in which code-switching, particularly by members of minority ethnic groups, is used to shape and maintain a sense of identity and a sense of belonging to a larger community.

In popular culture and particular among African Americans code switching is either with ambivalence or even outright hostility.  The Urban Dictionary definition illustrates this.  It defines “code switching” in neutral terms while the hashtags following  captures the ambivalence or outright hostility many feel about the practice.

code switching

To customize style of speech to the audience or group being addressed.
Example:  She talks street to her friends at school, but when she is with her family, she is code switching and speaks proper English.


This piece from NPR’s Code Switch podcast seems to imply that Code Switching is somewhat sketchy or in some way a cop-out  that nonetheless needs to be owned up to.

The words “power and peril” in the title of the Guardian review of the movie “Sorry to Bother You” perfectly illustrates ambivalence towards code switching:
Sorry to Bother You, black Americans and the power and peril of code-switching

Long before Sorry to Bother You taught moviegoers the meaning of code-switching – the act of altering how you express yourself based on your audience – I learned its power by listening to my father take phone calls. While checking in with his mother in Georgia he’d drift into a black southern lilt, subtly prolonging vowel sounds as he reverted to his childhood timbre. From there, he’d answer calls from his white co-workers, ingratiating himself with carefree enthusiasm and a formal syntax while deftly employing his lawyerly lexicon.

But at the barbershop, my father was best at being himself. As soon as the shop’s door swung open, I’d watch him relax his stance before strutting towards the owner of the shop. As if preparing to bounce, he’d walk with a slight bend in his knee, greeting him with an ardent “My man!” before dapping him up. From there, he’d pay similar respects to the other barbers and fellow customers, often extending a hug to the older women waiting for their sons, smiling at shopgoers the way you smile at family. And as the barbershop buzzed with local gossip and philosophical debate alike, I’d hang on my father’s every word, listening to him drop the “r” from “brother” or the “l” from “alright” or the “g” from seemingly any verb. At the shop, he was cool in a way only black people can be cool.

Criminal Thinking/Personality Theory Critique and challenge 

This page will eventually be a well organized narrative summary of the major categories of criticism  of Samenow and Yochelson’s Criminal Personality Theory research and publications with examples and citations of most significant reviews and contrary research findings.

For now it is just a minimally organized listing of what I turn up in my research with minimal to no summarizing or commentary other than in  heading copy.

A devastating early academic review: The Criminal Personality: Exceptions to the Rule: A Review of The Criminal Personality, Volume I: A Profile for Change by Richard A. Dienstbier

In attempting to show that more traditional ways of understanding criminal development are insufficient, the authors do not present arguments that are logically compelling or well documented with data. In addition, they are not able to develop any convincing theoretical alternatives to those traditional accounts.

The authors mistakenly search for ultimate causal variables to account for their clients’ criminality. Thus they reject any variable demonstrated by other research to have some causal relationship with criminal behavior if they can argue that it does not invariably lead to criminal behavior (emphasis added here and throughout). Broken homes, for example, are dismissed as an important cause of criminality since some siblings are not turned to crime by this background variable. Unfortunately for their argument, the authors’ denial of the relevance of such factors as broken homes, disadvantaged economic circumstances, and bizarre socialization techniques by parents is not based upon evidence presented in numerical form or upon contrasts with any comparison group; nor do they consider the possibility that such factors might interact to cause criminal behavior. Instead, the authors merely ask the reader to accept their conclusion that most of their criminal clients came from homes with some caring adults, that they were socialized in normal ways, etc. Alongside the illogicality of discounting the impact of social, physical, and psychological variables simply because such variables are not perfect independent predictors of criminality, the authors compound the problem by an insufficient review of relevant literature  (Dienstbier,  1977 p.  211-212).

In attempting to demonstrate the superiority of understanding the criminal through an analysis of the criminal’s thinking patterns, the authors present no theory or evidence to explain why such patterns emerge….In attempting to formulate abstractions about “thinking errors,” the authors present evidence in the form of their own notes from interactions with their clients. This is a very limited form of evidence, since the authors do not discuss in detail the degree to which their own emerging theory may have disposed them to see confirmation of their theory in their subjective data; nor are they prone to present numbers. (Dienstbier,  1977 p.  2013).

A placeholder listing from an  undocumented and badly written but reasonably comprehensive overview of Criminal Thinking Theory, Yochelson and Samenow: What Makes a Criminal?

(I am researching to determine a source for each of the following claims. Emphasis added throughout.)

They began their study with 240 male patients who were being treated at St. Elizabeths and had come from a variety of backgrounds. The patients were “hardened criminals” and had committed thousands of crimes in their lifetimes, according to the psychologists.

Contemporaneous reviews of Yochelson and Samenow’s publication tended to focus on the shortcomings of their methodology…the experimental design… had serious flaws.

First of all, the researchers did not include a control group

…the attrition that occurred over the fourteen-year period left so few patients that subsequent researchers had to wonder if any results…held ….for the population as a whole.

….the researchers…offered neither logical arguments nor data to support their decision to reject sociological and biological explanations for criminal behavior.

Clarke, Marcus. Psysci. (undated) “Yochelson and Samenow: What Makes a Criminal?” [Blog post] Retrieved from https://www.psysci.co/yochelson-samenow/

Walters’ four criticisms:  

Walters criticized Yochelson and Samenow’s conceptualization of criminal thinking errors identifying, 1) insufficient operationalization, 2) difficulty of empirical evaluation, 3) lack of generalizability and applicability, and 4) lack of recognition of environmental influences on erroneous thinking as specific weaknesses of their theory.  (enumeration added)

(Mandracchia et al. / INMATE THINKING PATTERNS, p. 1031. CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, Vol. 34 No. 8, August 2007 1029-1043 DOI: 10.1177/0093854807301788–citation copied –minimal to no editing for APA formatting.)