Motivating Change in a Person Who Is Justice-Involved

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<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >Motivating Change in a Person Who Is Justice-Involved</span>

Every January, 30–40% of Americans set resolutions focused on improvement and changed behavior. While fewer than 10% of those individuals will achieve their resolution(s), the desire for positive change remains year after year. 

Resolutions are something that people involved in the justice system regularly encounter, whether they set the resolution on their own or the resolution is an expectation stipulated by the justice system. Like the average American who sets an annual resolution or two, a person involved in the justice system may struggle to achieve well-intended, needed, and in many cases, court-ordered change. 

While the need for changed behaviors may be obvious to professionals in the justice system and/or the individual’s inner circle, it may not be as obvious to the individual needing to change. So, to help people realize the power that intentional, positive change can bring to their lives and their friends and family, you have to ask important questions and get to the source of their fears related to the change. It is equally important to assure the individual that they have the potential and support to make the change happen. People typically struggle with change since it's not always simple to do it alone; changing things can be challenging, and change is frequently seen as a threat, even when intended to have positive results. 

Determining Why Change is Important for People in the Justice System

Getting to the “why” is an important first step in implementing change. Most of us, from the time we were little, are interested in the “why.” This questioning stems from curiosity and a desire to better understand the reason(s); it also gives us a greater sense of control in the process.

For individuals involved in the justice system, the “why” has historically been dictated to them to impose change rather than motivate it; research has proven this approach is ineffective. Instead, by utilizing evidence-based practices, such as Motivational Interviewing, justice system professionals are better able to inspire change. Motivational Interviewing involves a collaborative, person-centered approach that, through interactive conversations, identifies the change needed, helps determine readiness for change, and allows the individual the necessary autonomy and motivation to follow through with the change.

This process requires listening and empathy from the justice professional, the ability to share an understanding of what you heard, and the willingness to help them discover why change is important. Change isn’t easy, and there are often setbacks. Being willing to recognize that, as opposed to assuming ambivalence or resistance to change, and watching/listening for how they plan to move forward with optimism, despite any setbacks, is integral to motivating lasting positive change. Whenever possible, allow the person who is justice-involved to be actively involved in the decisions specific to change and the alternative solutions utilized if they struggle.  

Running to Change

An avid runner and advocate for positive change, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig J. Mitchell founded the Skid Row Running Club in 2012 because he believes in “the power of running to improve the lives of those who are at risk of homelessness and addiction.” Judge Michell’s running club meets biweekly at The Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles. Many might consider the running club “unusual,” and they refer to themselves as such because the group leader is a justice system professional running alongside people with current or previous justice involvement. Yet, for Judge Mitchell and other Running Club members, the club makes sense because it provides them the opportunity to connect three times a week, engage in healthy activity, and support each other while working together toward positive, lasting change.

The Skid Row Running Club has proven to be a successful change motivator for over a decade and has even been featured in the documentary “Skid Row Marathon.” Mentors are a core component of the running club, and if a member experiences a relapse, slip-up, or fall from the group, their mentors are immediately there for them. They’re also there for the positive milestones that other runners experience: international marathons, successful completion of parole, finishing school, getting a new job, etc.

Ben, an accomplished concert composer who’s in recovery, got involved with Skid Row Running Club when he was unhoused and at an extremely low point in his life, credits the running club for his sobriety and positive changes in his life, “I didn’t do this on my own. I had the support of a lot of people. This is not a one-man effort by any stretch of the imagination.”

Judge Mitchell recognizes that many individuals in his courtroom, at the mission, and in the running club have experienced “a litany of disappointments and unresolved hopes.” While he respects the importance of accountability, he also believes in giving people dignity and opportunity. “Whatever sacrifices I have made to make this possible, in terms of time and energy and expenditures, it’s worth it. That’s what I wish people would understand. If you just give a little of yourself, once in a while drop an encouraging word, make a phone call on behalf of somebody, sometimes, that’s enough.”

Similarly, Rebecca, a mom, runner, and person in recovery, echoes the sentiments of Ben and Judge Mitchell and knows the power of having someone believe in you. “I know that if I get hired I’ll be a good employee. You know, I just need that one person that’s just willing to say, ‘Okay, let’s give her a chance.’ You know, ‘Let’s see what she can do.’” After completing an international marathon with the running club, an employer gave Rebecca a chance, and she accepted a position as a surgical technician.

How Effective Interactions and Communication Motivates Change

Judge Mitchell motivated changes through relationships and running; however, there is more than one way to motivate change, and running is not for everyone. Once you’ve worked through the “why,” have a conversation with the person with justice involvement In this stage of the change process, the person making the change must uncover intrinsic motivation by recognizing their abilities, strengths, and prior accomplishments — not past failures — and by establishing a goal, such as running, attending school, spending more time with their kids, giving back to the community, etc. For some, the idea of being free of restrictions and stipulations is enough motivation. For others, having and/or aiming for a greater purpose will be critical to change. 

As a justice professional, your “how” will depend on the way you interact, support, and respond to the individual at all times, good and bad. We all need at least one stable and supportive adult in our lives, and, for the most part, we all want to be good, happy, healthy, and successful humans. To keep individuals on a path of positive change, be the supportive adult, and communicate proactively and frequently, as opposed to reactively and only as required. Help the person who is justice-involved frame the change in a way that focuses on the advantages of different behaviors and actions instead of the disadvantages of staying the same. Together, identify “how” they will make changes and work toward their purpose.

If they struggle, step up your communications and interactions, listen to their concerns, and help them identify ways to address the barriers. Instead of assuming the individual is negative or change-resistant, be open to understanding the pause in the progress, talk through roadblocks and solutions, and intervene and redirect early, with empathy. When safely and feasibly possible, let mistakes be learning, not punitive, opportunities. Empower the individual by inviting them to identify solutions to improve their situation. Listening and responding with strength-based comments that build their confidence goes a long way. Example statement “starters” include:

  • I’m confident that you… 
  • You excel at… 
  • You have the skills needed to… 
  • I hear you… 
  • You’re getting so close to your goal… 
  • You have a purpose… 

Asking simple questions, such as, “What’s getting in your way?” and “How can I help?” is another way to demonstrate support and to motivate change in a conversational, empathetic manner that, again, empowers them to identify solutions.  

Equally important as the “why” and “how” to motivate change is the ability to recognize the signs of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, relapse, stress, and other mental health-related symptoms commonly experienced by people involved in the justice system so you can quickly respond in a manner that is supportive and focused on maintaining positive, long-lasting change. To learn more about these signs, we recommend reading a related blog post, “Improving Mental Health Among People Involved in the Justice System.” 

For assistance with increasing people’s motivation to change, encouraging prosocial behavior, and preventing non-compliant behavior, contact a Carey Group consultant who can connect you with effective, research-based solutions. Carey Group recently released a new booster curriculum, the Supervisor’s EBP BriefCASE Supplemental Set: Trauma and Resilience Series, that provides evidence-based practice supervisors with the tools they need to understand clients’ resistant behaviors, motivate change, and build resiliency

Trauma and resilience series To purchase the Trauma and Resilience Series, and for assistance with strategic thinking and planning required to assess your organization’s readiness to change, ability to manage the change, and to evaluate the progress made in achieving the desired change, contact Carey Group or purchase the series here.


Decades of experience demonstrate that aligning justice systems around evidence-based policies and practices offers the greatest promise of success. Carey Group offers services and products for justice system professionals, from evidence-based consulting to interactive workbooks that help improve the mental health and lives of people with involvement in the justice system.  

Carey Group’s evidence-based training and consulting services address the needs of the justice system and behavioral health professionals. Training is essential for keeping staff, supervisors, leadership, and stakeholders updated with emerging knowledge and expectations for improved outcomes. Carey Group offers in-person, online, and self-directed courses on evidence-based practices, Motivational Interviewing, core professional competencies, case planning and management, continuous quality improvement, coaching, behavior-change tools, and supervisor resources.