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Help Criminal Justice Students Explore a Key Question: Can People Change?

By taking on behavior change themselves, students in Ingrid McGuffog’s community corrections class gain empathy for those struggling to change their lives.


Ingrid McGuffog, PhD

Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, The College at Brockport, State University of New York

PhD in Criminology, Master of Social Sciences in Sociology (Research Methods), Graduate Diploma in Teaching (Secondary), BA in History and Political Science

According to the National Institute of Justice, the most recent figures on recidivism show that, within five years of being released, nearly 75% of people who were incarcerated are rearrested. “The prison population has skyrocketed over the last 40 years, and recidivism is a fundamental problem,” says Ingrid McGuffog, PhD, an assistant professor of criminal justice at The College at Brockport, SUNY.

That is why, at the heart of her course Community-Based Corrections, is one compelling question: Can people change?

The question of change is not simply a philosophical one. What sets McGuffog apart may be the fact that she sees a more humane and informed community and profession that works with returning citizens as crucial to helping bring recidivism rates down. Her teaching philosophy and style reflects this belief.

“My expertise is at the intersections of illicit-drug policy and the carceral state,” says McGuffog. “I see justice-involved individuals being stereotyped and criminalized by federal and state drug policies. We know that, in prisons and jails, many people have mental health and substance abuse issues that go untreated. The effects of the current system, which offers too few supports for people who have a history of neglect and trauma or addiction, can be devastating. Studying how to create better outcomes, for people who are returning to their communities from prisons traumatized and suffering complex mental health and other behavioral issues, requires us to look at their behavior and understand it—and know what is possible for them.”

Which has led McGuffog to another question: What can I do to help my students understand how hard it is to change?


Many students have not struggled with behavior change

Students who have little or no personal or family experience with addiction, mental health issues, or incarceration may find it difficult to understand and empathize with people who do. McGuffog wanted her students—many of whom will go on to become law enforcement officers—to be enlightened about the realities of these issues and be more open to the various alternatives to incarceration.

In fact, there are some 7 million people in the US currently serving their sentence in the community. The vast majority of people with a conviction receive a sentence of probation—community-based corrections essentially refers to probation and parole and is the supervision of convicted people in the community.


Students observe behavior change in themselves and others

McGuffog—who has an interdisciplinary background in sociology, criminology, and public health—teaches Community-Based Corrections as a social science. Specifically, she focuses on what drives the behavior of people returning to life outside prison. “We talk about ‘Is the system against people? Or are people simply unwilling to change their behavior?’” she says. “Most likely, it’s a combination of both, and the only way for students to understand the many layers of the correctional system—and its barriers to change—is to experience each one personally.”

Short of putting someone behind bars, it’s tough to replicate the experience of working within a justice system that McGuffog calls “flawed.” But she has a four-part approach that helps her students experience and observe the difficulties of changing a behavior and maintaining that change.


“We know that, in the prisons and jails, many people have either mental health or substance abuse issues that go untreated…. Studying how to create better outcomes, for people who are returning to their communities from prisons traumatized and suffering complex mental health and other behavioral issues, requires us to look at their behavior and understand it—and know what is possible for them.”

— Ingrid McGuffog, PhD

Course: CRJ 331 Community-Based Corrections

Description: Explores the evolution of community-based corrections, the interrelationship between community-based correction programs and other criminal justice agencies, and the role and involvement of the public in community-based corrections.




See resources shared by Ingrid McGuffog, PhD

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Lesson: 5 ways to show the challenges of behavior change

McGuffog’s Community-Based Corrections course begins with an introduction to the history and philosophy of the criminal justice system, and how it is beginning to change. The emphasis in most corrections textbooks is on recidivism and not desistance. Recidivism is returning to crime, while desistance is the process of stopping criminal behavior. Using the lens of recidivism leads us to see people from a framework of their deficits, whereas applying an understanding of desistance leads us to see people from a more strengths-based frame, says McGuffog. So she includes readings on that research in the students’ coursework. For example, students analyze the seminal book on desistance by Shadd Maruna, Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives, published by the American Psychological Association. This also helps develop students’ research, writing, and critical-thinking skills, while opening their eyes to new possibilities.

“Preparation, positivity, and participation are the three ways that students show me that they are along for the journey,” she says. “If everyone is showing up to my class, they will gain personal insights into how to apply their learning on the job.”

Here are five activities that provide those aha! moments for students:

1. A personal exercise in behavior change

Starting on the first day of class, students essentially embark on a journey that is similar to that of a former inmate seeking to adopt a new way of living or avoid the behavior that got them in trouble. “Students can choose any behavior they feel comfortable writing about,” says McGuffog. “I’ve had students commit to stop drinking, quit smoking weed, start going to the gym, or be diligent about doing the class readings.”

To educate them throughout this journey, McGuffog first takes them through the “cognitive model,” which is the basis for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and related exercises, and she has them record their efforts and observations through journaling. As they progress, they realize that change is challenging. Journal prompts throughout the semester guide them through the stages of change as they record their own experiences, and they also get a personal glimpse of the different stages of readiness—pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation—that lead up to such change, McGuffog says. Only then can they move on to taking action and ultimately trying to maintain the new behavior.

“I introduce the book Making Good, and we start to incorporate the notion of desistance, and they use other concepts from this qualitative study to understand their own thinking; their own ‘condemnation’ or ‘redemption’ scripts, which they read about from actual people who themselves either stopped criminal behavior or were unable to,” McGuffog explains. It is through this relating of their own experiences to that of others in the literature that students can begin to understand not only their change but others’ as well.

She reviews students’ journals several times throughout the semester. The goal is for them to experience the difficulty of commitment and understand how easy it is to relapse into old patterns of behavior. If they relapse, they must examine what may have triggered that, then figure out how they can find support to recommit to their goal.

2. Visits to a halfway house

During the semester, McGuffog introduces a field trip to a nearby women’s halfway house, where she is doing enthnographic work on desistance for people in reentry. Students may attend their core activity (as McGuffog does), a community meeting that includes current residents, alumni of the program, local community members, volunteers, and students from fields including social work and medicine. They are also introduced to a “brother” organization that holds similar meetings. These meetings are a “redemptive and restorative experience where women and men in reentry and recovery support each other. Anyone in the circle can ask to speak; people share their struggles and their progress, and others give feedback,” says McGuffog.

After attending, students submit a reflective essay based on their experience. “Exposing students to the field gives them a real look at the day-to-day reality of the obstacles to change and the stages of readiness a person goes through in order to change. Students witness the various challenges faced by people in reentry, including managing their obligation to the courts; undergoing random drug testing; establishing and maintaining a program of outside treatment for trauma, mental health, and addiction issues. It allows students to understand that change is challenging on two levels: the inner personal struggle to change habits of thinking and behaving, and the external demands of the criminal justice and welfare systems,” says McGuffog.

3. Visits from guest speakers

“I invite guest speakers from the local Rochester community who either work in or have been involved with the corrections system,” says McGuffog. Recent classes have heard from professional case managers, counselors, and social workers. One woman in long-term recovery from addiction, who spent two years incarcerated in a local jail, has shared with the class her story from childhood, including how addiction took hold and how she drifted into a life of crime. McGuffog also invites a panel from both the halfway houses, which are largely run by people who either were residents or who were formerly incarcerated. “Each speaker offers the class their unique perspective on how the system does—and does not—work.”

Through these talks, students begin to understand the recent and current workings of community-based corrections, including its development, processes, and philosophy.

Research: Reentry and Recovery Among Criminalized Women, the Drug-Crime Nexus, and More

McGuffog has formerly worked as the research director in a private consulting firm and has published in the fields of criminology and public health. In addition to her teaching schedule at SUNY Brockport, she is currently conducting research on the following:

  • The regulation of precursor chemicals (scheduled substances used to manufacture illegal drugs)
  • The public health impact of crime prevention efforts in suppressing drug supply
  • College students’ perceptions and opinions about decriminalizing cannabis and the risks of illicit drug use

She is also currently engaged in a project using a photo storytelling ethnographic methodology. This method involved her creating and implementing a series of workshops for residents in a women’s halfway house. Women were invited to express their experience with desistance through creating their own photo story. The use of images and written narrative offers up a transformative experience to support these women and will be offered as an exhibition in the community of Rochester, New York to inform others of their needs.

4. Group discussions and assessments

During class time, McGuffog breaks the class into small groups to collaborate and apply what they have learned through their research and in-class activities. One of the goals of these assignments is for students to develop the professional style and writing skills they will use on the job—for reports, assessments, field notes, and more. Another is for the students to serve as an informal support network for one another, reflecting on the behavioral changes they attempted and the difficulties they experienced.

There are two key exercises that students do in pairs. The first is to write a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) report, which they have learned about through lectures, reading, and video assignments. Students are given a detailed case study of a client, and they then role-play: One student is the client, the other the probation officer. In one class session, the probation officer interviews the client, then both students collaborate to write up the PSI report. The most important part of the exercise is to apply the theories and goals of corrections to justify the sentence they recommend. The second exercise builds upon the PSI report, using the students’ learnings about treatment. They collaborate again to write out a “treatment plan” for their fictional clients.

“Students enjoy these ‘hands-on’ experiences immensely, as they allow the use of imagination and stepping into another’s shoes,” says McGuffog. “They also have to really think through their own personal philosophy of rehabilitation and justify it.”

5. A term paper about behavioral change

The class ends with a return to the central question posed by McGuffog at the outset: “Knowing what you do now, do you think people can change? If so, why do you think such a large proportion of formerly incarcerated people stay entangled in the criminal justice system?” Students summarize their answers in a term paper, informed by their attempts at behavioral change and the evidence they have found in readings and field visits.

Reading these papers has given Dr. McGuffog much hope for the future generation of young people who want to work in some capacity in the criminal justice system or in related professions. “A former student from this class went on to do an independent study with me, where he interned at the men’s halfway house for 18 hours a week. He is now employed at [a] local facility for youth,” she says. “He recently visited this semester’s class and shared his experience in the course and the outcome for him. Student enthusiasm for the field visit and the work in the class is at an all-time high.”

Student feedback

Here are some student testimonials from their reflective journals and final assignments in McGuffog’s class:

“The challenge I issued to myself was to improve the work atmosphere and remove the small level of complacency that exists…. I work at a residential housing center for displaced veterans, who are either homeless, or coming off of drug rehabilitation programs. I am the newest staff member and I’ve noticed that a lot of the staff sit in the office and do the absolute bare minimum. So with this task you’ve issued, I have tried to change the attitudes and atmosphere by my actions, and through those actions, I have tried to set a positive example for others to step outside their comfort zones and really help these guys (the residents).”

“After putting myself in the offenders’ shoes, it became clear to me that it is nearly impossible for an offender, let alone a person who has never offended, to get through any point of their life without any type of support. Offenders can change as long as they have the will power, the support system, the self-control, and the absolute desire to want to change. Without the right amount of support and/or the willingness to change, the recidivism rates will continue to rise….”

“This class so far has reinforced why I want to pursue corrections or juvenile reform as a career path. I have improved my understanding of the criminal justice system in the aspect that there is not a one size fits all resolution…. Hopefully when I graduate I will continue to incorporate these principles I’ve learned and positively contribute to the criminal justice system.”

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  1. Ingrid is one of the most amazing woman/teacher/mentor that I have ever met. She has really helped me in so many ways and I’m really grateful that she is being recognized. She has already changed so many lives and I have faith that she will make a great impact on the world!

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