The Criminal Thinking Problem

[CB editorial note:  Citations are needed and will be supplied for the most important claims re: Criminal Thinking theory in future page revisions.  This page has not been fully updated with changes and more recent research or documentation reflected on other pages.]

What is Criminal Thinking as per Samenow’s model?

Samenow and Yochelson’s Criminal Thinking or Criminal Personality theory (hereafter “Criminal Personality Theory” or CPT) of criminology and offender rehabilitation remains one of the most respected and widely adopted theoretical frameworks in the juvenile corrections system.   As it supplies the foundational theory  for  multiple somewhat more compre-hensive clinical treatment and intervention models that go by other names it is hard to quantify just how ubiquitous the Criminal Personality Theory actually in US juvenile justice programs.[1}

The first five of the Top Ten Criminal Thinking Errors

Criminal Personality Theory appears to be equally ubiquitous in  many states’ adult corrections systems and in Walters’ significantly simplified form in  the federal corrections system. [2]

CPT also appears to have virtually canonical status in many educational criminal justice programs and textbooks..

“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 personality. 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]

Ensuring that juvenile offenders know the 52 thinking errors well and that they can correctly identify and own up to which Criminal Thinking Errors apply in any given offense or  rule violating behavior is a major treatment goal and condition for progressing through  the program in many juvenile facilities. [again [1]]  And the concept of Criminal Thinking and to a greater or lesser extent the 52 criminal thinking errors are either foundational to or important conceptual tools in other motivational interviewing or CBT-based juvenile justice programs.

Example of an adult corrections program adaptation and application of Criminal Personality Theory Mode
Criminal Thinking Therapy  —

Criminal Thinking Therapy is apparently endorsed by the National Institute of Corrections:

“The National Institute of Corrections has offered a training seminar, “Cognitive Approaches to Changing Offender Behavior”, for the last six years at their academy in Longmont, Colorado, and more recently as cooperative training programs in various locations throughout the country. Essentially, the curriculum which was developed by a panel of experts in cognitive behavioral interventions presented many of the cognitive restructuring and cognitive skills concepts in a generic, yet practical manner.”   [Slide 9]

It reduces the 52 thinking errors to a more manageable ten:

1. Closed Channel Thinking
2. Victim Stance
3. Views Self As A Good Person
4. Lack Of Effort
5. Fear Of Fear
6. Lack Of Interest In Responsible Performance
7. Lack Of Time Perspective
8. Power Thrust
9. Uniqueness
10. Ownership Attitude [slide 45]

Assessing the scale of adoption of CTT  by state and federal corrections systems

Endorsement by the National Institute of Corrections (an agency of the Department of Justice) would suggest wide if not virtually universal adoption the state and federal corrections systems though this is not easily confirmed.  Where it is adopted its not clear whether it would be for use in general clinical and rehabilitation programs or as an addiction recovery program. The expertise of the most frequent presenter on CTT (but not, apparently its author), Phillip Barbour’s expertise is in addictions and even the National Institute of Corrections curriculum presentations slides are headed Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network and noted as funded by SAHMSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

Criminal Thinking Therapy’s status as an evidence-based corrections program is hard to determine.  Its own website’s links external to evidence-based practice sites or resources do not link to anything that mentions CTT. It is difficult to assess its status as an evidence-based addiction program  due to SAHMSA’s shut down of its National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) in January of 2018.  It is not one of the 20 programs returned on a search re:  Criminal Thinking Therapy on the criminal justice/corrections EBP registry

[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 and community-based programs.   One factor complicating research on this is 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  The Criminal Personality model seems more often to be a framework model built into more comprehensive intervention programs marketed under other names.  As per Criminal Thinking Therapy above 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 in its mention in the 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’s model– 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] Samenow and Yochelson’s model appears to have been superseded in the federal corrections system by what some have characterized as Walter’s simplification and condensation of Criminal Personality Theory’s 52 criminal thinking errors into eight crime-supporting cognitive patterns.

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.

[3]  Samenow, S. (April, 2015) The Environment and Deterrence of Criminality. Psychology Today. Retrieved from  [The article subtitle is:  “The environment does not “cause” crime, but it may allow it to flourish.”