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Forensic therapist bridges psychology and criminal justice

“Forensic therapy” sounds like the premise for a dramatic television series. But the work Alex Easterbrook does as a real forensic therapist is far more challenging – and far more rewarding – than any scripted treatment could imagine.

“Forensic psychology is the intersection between the criminal justice system and the therapy world,” Easterbrook (Psychology, ’13) says. “We work with people who've been through a lot of trauma or have been really let down in their lives.”

In short, she conducts individual and group therapy with offenders in the criminal justice system. Through Correctional Psychology Associates, a private company that partners with criminal justice institutions in the Denver area, she treats people who are primarily on parole, on probation, and in halfway houses.

The type of treatment Easterbrook conducts depends on the charges on which a person is convicted, and what the court or a parole board determines is necessary. Sometimes, that’s individual therapy. Other times, clients participate in one of several therapy groups, such as anger management, criminal culture, substance abuse, and cognitive thinking – “that’s social cognition, where people think the rules don’t apply to them,” she explains.

But once a client starts therapy with CPA, therapists like Easterbrook can start looking at the bigger picture – that’s where the “forensic” part of her title comes in. What leads a person to commit crimes? And how can a person avoid repeating those mistakes?

“We evaluate the person and ask ourselves why this person ended up in this system,” she says. “What could we target to prevent or reduce their risk of ending up back in the system?”

This approach to therapy acknowledges that many convicts committed crimes in part because of environmental or psychological circumstances. These circumstances do not simply disappear just because people serve out their sentences. That’s why so many convicted criminals end up as repeat offenders.

So through forensic therapy, Easterbrook targets the individuals’ criminogenic needs, which are those traits or issues that directly relate to their likelihood to relapse and commit another crime. The goal, she says, is to reduce the risk to the community by improving her clients’ chances of changing course.

One of the great challenges Easterbrook faces in trying to turn offenders’ lives around is motivation. “People who are in the system are usually court mandated to attend some kind of treatment,” she says. “We’re not working with clients who – for the most part – want to be there, at least initially.”

Eventually, many of her clients come to embrace the therapy sessions, at least to a degree, she says. But once she overcomes that initial challenge, she still faces the reality that even a highly effective course of therapy doesn’t always lead to immediate or obvious results. The circumstances around a person’s criminal behavior are complex, so even if therapy successfully reduces an individual’s risk of ending up back in the system, that’s far from a guaranteed outcome.

“It's hard in this field,” she says, “because a lot of people do go back to prison, or they go to jail, or they relapse. So I can't base my worth on success on paper. I have to find it in other ways.”

Fortunately, she finds rewards in her work proportional to the challenges – rewards that don’t always show up in traditional statistics.

“I find it really rewarding to be a consistent person in these people’s lives,” she says. “I show up when I say I'm going to show up. I keep my word. I set boundaries. To become that person for them: I’m an example that people do care, and people will keep their word.”

This work, with its daily challenges and its intangible rewards, is heavy lifting for anyone. It still surprises Easterbrook that it’s the career she chose.

“I really never thought I'd be a therapist,” she acknowledges. “I'm kind of blown away that this is what I'm doing.”

She knew she was interested in psychology as an undergraduate, even though she hadn’t yet considered becoming a therapist. That’s when she first discovered her passion for forensic psychology.

“Back at Fort Lewis, [Professor] Brian Burke taught a forensic psychology class. I remember it piqued my interest,” she says. “He invited a guest speaker who conducted psychological autopsies. After someone passed away, he tried to figure out if it was suicide or accidental. I was so intrigued by the thought of that.”

“That’s what sparked my interest,” she adds. “I just thought, what are potential grad programs in this field?”

She considered approaching the field of criminal justice with a law degree, but she didn’t see herself being a lawyer. The legal aspects of criminal justice didn’t engage her the way that the personal and behavioral aspects do. “I was like, how can I be a part of this field in a way where I can influence change or make an impact of some sort for people?” she says.

Ultimately, she applied to a single graduate program and was accepted. She earned her Master in Forensic Psychology from the University of Denver, then went straight to work for CPA.

Now Easterbrook is nearly three years into her career. Her company is helping her manage the high intensity of the work – there’s a significant burnout rate in the field of forensic therapy, likely owing to a combination of heavy workloads and clients relapsing after treatment. And even though she doesn’t always see the fruits of her work, she knows that she’s planting the seeds for future change – for her clients, as well as herself.

“I'm excited to see where I end up, because I just keep learning and growing and having all these experiences,” Easterbrook says. “It’s been a journey, for sure. And I really enjoy where I’m at.”