There is a growing trend in the United States to reduce crime and recidivism by educating, treating, and reforming individuals rather than punishing them with harsh sentences. This takes on many forms. The First Step Act, for instance, seeks to reduce existing sentences and reincarceration through education in prison.
A new study from Iowa State University shows a treatment method that reduces recidivism and acts of violence in men convicted of domestic violence.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy through Values-Based Behavior (ACTV)
Iowa is one of the states that mandate treatment for men convicted of domestic violence instead of a prison sentence. The most used education model is the Duluth Model, which asserts that sexism is the root cause of domestic violence. While this can often be part of the picture, the Duluth Model does little to reeducate those who commit domestic violence or reduce recidivism.
Amie Zarling, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, took a different approach called the ACTV (pronounced “active”) program which Iowa piloted in 2010 and has since expanded, training over 500 staff in the model and treating more than 15,000 men charged with domestic violence.
ACTV is a cognitive-behavioral approach based on a unified model of human development, behavior change, and psychological growth.
“ACT-based programs hold the perspective that there are many contributors to intimate partner violence, including a lack of skills to manage emotions and communicate in a healthy and respectful way, as well as troubling or harmful beliefs and attitudes toward women and toward oneself. A history of trauma, experiencing racial discrimination, attachment difficulties, substance use, and even mental health can also be factors,” says Zarling.
ACT-based programs don’t presume reasons for why someone is abusive, instead look at former trauma, identify values, and build relationships to add knowledge and improve “psychological flexibility.”
“From the ACT perspective, our brains work by adding rather than subtracting, meaning it’s really hard to remove a thought, emotion, or feeling that pops up. But with psychological flexibility, someone can notice that thought or feeling and how it’s trying to pull them to behave a certain way, gain some distance from it, and then have the ability to choose more mindfully when responding to that thought or feeling.”
The study that Zarling published in the journal of the American Psychological Association examined 338 men convicted of domestic violence and found that about half of those treated with the ACTV method did not commit violent or non-violent crimes after treatment.
More data is needed to adopt ACTV as a national treatment method because sadly many cases of domestic violence are not reported to the police. Zarling, however, has what she needs to initiate a randomized controlled trial of ACTV in a prison setting with a grant from the Department of Justice. In time, we might have the research and funds necessary to implement this new method countrywide and to nationally reduce rates of domestic violence.