Diversionary Tactics

Exactly how many CMC students are able to break the cycle is unclear, and police and prosecutors say they have their doubts.

AT FIRST GLANCE, sending small-time offenders to day-long behavior-modification workshops seems like a great deal for everyone concerned: Court dockets are less clogged with petty offenders, first-time offenders don't end up with an arrest record, and, best of all from a bureaucrat's viewpoint, the arrestee pays for the whole thing. Little wonder, then, that the city of Minneapolis last week renewed its contract with a local company that runs a variety of programs designed to turn small- and first-time criminals around.

The trouble is, no one knows whether they work. Critics contend the workshops are largely ineffectual because they're too brief to rehabilitate an offender. As the programs become an increasingly lucrative niche within the multimillion dollar corrections-services industry, they say, local officials should be tracking participants to see how many are arrested again.

CMC Justice Services Inc. is a franchise, much like McDonald's or Amway, but it dispenses counseling rather than burgers or boxes of soap. Its Arizona-based parent company, National Curriculum and Training Institute (NCTI) has developed a series of teaching methods, workbooks, and lesson plans it sells to independent operators.

Leonard Axelrod brought NCTI's diversion programs to Minnesota in 1987 when he founded CMC, which runs "conduct-modification programs" for city and county governments throughout the Midwest, with the lion's share of its business in Minnesota. The city of Minneapolis has been a CMC client for eight years, and Dakota County signed on in April for a curfew-offender program for juveniles. Current company president Linda Axelrod says CMC instructors have extensive experience in criminal justice, and are trained in the "NCTI method," which company manuals say centers around an offender "understanding the relationship between values, attitudes and behaviors as they relate to the decision-making process." More simply, says Axelrod, "we try to get people to look at why they do what they do."

First-time shoplifters in Minneapolis have been able to avoid prosecution by attending CMC classes since 1989, says City Attorney Carol Lansing. Offenders pay $85 for the eight-hour workshop. Upon completion, charges are dropped.

While the types of offenses committed by adult and juvenile CMC students may differ, the workshops follow a standard format. Each session begins with an icebreaking exercise in which participants talk about who they are and how they got there. "It's kind of confessional," says one former instructor. "People talk about how they feel, and it helps clear the air." Next, participants engage in "values, attitude, and behavior" exercises to learn how criminal behavior diverges from their core values. The rest of the session is devoted to helping participants devise strategies to remain true to their belief systems. "We discuss how you can make changes in your life, like going back to school or changing your circle of friends, so you don't go back to [criminal] behavior," says the former instructor.

But exactly how many CMC students are able to break the cycle is unclear, and police and prosecutors say they have their doubts. Court administrators don't track participants. The coordinator of the city's shoplifting program has kept his own log of CMC grads, however, and has found recidivism rates are less than 10 percent. "Out of 832 cases, only 9 percent of these individuals reoffended," says Officer Dave Rumpza. He acknowledges, however, that the numbers aren't as magical as they seem. By his calculations, only 5 percent of the first-time-offender population takes advantage of CMC, and those who do tend to be unusually self-motivated. "For some people, just being arrested is enough." The majority of shoplifters are chronic reoffenders with drug and alcohol problems, and treating them is more complicated, says Rumpza.

"My feeling is one of skepticism," says Joachim Savelberg, a University of Minnesota professor of criminolgy. "Just looking at what they did and why they did it may not have much impact on their future behavior." More useful, he says, is restitutive work such as sending a shoplifter to work at the store he or she stole from.

"Programs like ours are gap-fillers," concedes Axelrod. "Most cities or counties don't have time to prosecute petty crimes, so requiring offenders to attend some kind of conduct-modification program keeps them from falling through the cracks."

 
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