Self Determination Theory and Internal Motivation in Treatment Courts

Participant #1: “I entered Treatment Court because I want treatment and a better life for my kids and myself.”

Participant #2: “I entered Treatment Court because I am sick of jail.”

Do clients freely choose to enter a treatment court? The answer is far from simple. Is it a “choice” when the criminal justice system relies on external motivators like incarceration and resulting cascade of losses? Ideally, the choice to enter a treatment court would be an autonomous one that reflects a participant’s internal motivations to live a healthier, more meaningful life. Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory (SDT) holds that internally motivated behaviors are stronger, longer lasting, and produce better outcomes than those that are externally motivated (Deci & Ryan 1985). SDT provides the framework for a number of studies of the impact of treatment courts and other legally mandated programs (e.g. Morse et al., 2014; Wild et al., 2016).

According to SDT, three psychological needs must be met to foster internal motivation and self-determined behavior: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. To the extent that treatment courts support these inborn, intrinsic needs, clients are more likely to engage in treatment and maintain gains.

Autonomy is enhanced when clients feel they have options and take responsibility for choices. At intake, staff must make clear the voluntary nature of treatment court programs, especially because the consequences of refusing are often swift and aversive. Does the court notice and consistently praise and encourage values-driven choices, or does it emphasize missteps and sanctions, which detract from autonomy? Motivational Interviewing is a NADCP Best Practice designed to maximize autonomy and minimize coercion. Competence develops through a focus on skills development, repeated practice, and environmental support. Evidence-based practices such as relapse prevention training and stress management equip clients to face the challenges of recovery. Lapses are viewed as opportunities to refine skills and increase competence.
Relatedness is the need to interact and be connected with others. Through treatment groups and treatment court membership, clients give and receive support, which is both healing and crucial to problem solving and competence.

While Client #1 seems more internally motivated and ready to engage, research indicates that Client #2 also has the potential to succeed in treatment court. SDT holds that over time, externally motivated behaviors can transition to become internally motivated. This process is at the heart of therapeutic jurisprudence.

References: 

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Toronto: New York: Plenum Press.
 
Morse, D. S., Cerulli, C., Bedell, P., Wilson, J. L., Thomas, K., Mittal, M., Lamberti, J. S., Williams, G., Silverstein, J., Mukherjee, A., Walck, D., & Chin, N. (2014). Meeting health and psychological needs of women in drug treatment court. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 46(2), 150–157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2013.08.017
 
Wild, C., Yuan, Y., Rush, B.R. & Urbanski, A. (2016). Client engagement in legally mandated addiction treatment: A prospective study using Self-Determination Theory. Journal of Substance Use Treatment, 69, 35-43.
 

Written by Sally MacKain, Ph.D., LP

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