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An experimental Utah program that requires juvenile probationers to examine their beliefs and then sends them automated phone calls has been shown to dramatically cut their risk of reoffending, according to a new study by Brigham Young University scholars.

The program, run by a Springville-based nonprofit called RealVictory, follows juvenile probationers for a year with daily cell phone calls after they take a six-week course. Nearly half the participants had not been rearrested a year later, versus 90 percent in a control group, reports BYU sociology professor Bert Burraston.

"The process of evaluating the consequences of one's behavior, setting short- and long-term goals, and using a cell phone to reinforce goal accomplishment can help some individuals avoid further criminal behavior," wrote Burraston, lead author of a study published online by the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.

Co-authors included sociologist Stephen Bahr and David Cherrington, a professor of organizational behavior.

Past studies have demonstrated that programs targeting "cognitive behavior" show promise when other programs do not. RealVictory builds on strategies developed by an Oregon probation officer named Carl Reddick. He adapted ideas from former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett's 1987 business book Gaining Control to help juvenile criminals gain control over their lives.

"We try to make the connection clear between belief behaviors and results. Instead of focusing on your behavior, take a step backward and look at the beliefs," said RealVictory executive director Bruce Bennett, the former senator's nephew. "We are careful not to tell people what they should believe, what is wrong and what is right."

The course is taught in six 90-minute sessions, but RealVictory added a year of follow-up in the form of daily automated calls to the probationer.

Each youth is given a cell phone and a one-year calling plan. One to three times a day they receive a call in which they are asked a few questions about their progress, and based on their responses, get a pre-recorded message of encouragement, often from a family member.

"The use of that phone appears to extend the effectiveness of the class and make a difference," Bahr said.

RealVictory is supported by corporate donations — Cricket Communications donated 100 phones, for example — and a $20,000 state grant.

Breaking teen recidivism

Youths aged 15 to 19 comprise just 7 percent of the population, but account for 21 percent of the nation's crime. Most reoffend after being released on probation. A new Utah program called RealVictory offers a cost-effective way to prevent recidivism, according to a new BYU study. RealVictory includes a six-week course in which teens examine how their beliefs get them in trouble, then a year of daily coaching in the form of cell-phone calls. Program participants were half as likely to be rearrested than those undergoing traditional probation.