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King, Michael --- "Individual empowerment as a goal of sentencing: the Enlightened Sentencing Project" [2000] AltLawJl 43; (2000) 25(3) Alternative Law Journal 112

Individual empowerment as a goal of sentencing: The Enlightened Sentencing Project

The use of Transcendental Meditation as a rehabilitation tool in criminal justice

Michael S. King[*]

In the conservative, mid-west State of Missouri, in the ‘Bible Belt’ of America, five St Louis judges are sentencing offenders to practise a meditation technique that has its roots in the ancient Vedic tradition of India — Transcendental Meditation — as a rehabilitation program. Two of these judges, David Mason and Anna Forder, visited Australia in November 1999 to present this unique approach to offender rehabilitation to the judiciary, legal profession, media and the general public. Both judges are from Missouri’s 22nd Judicial Circuit Court. Judge Forder practises the technique, but Judge Mason does not.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced the Transcendental Meditation technique to the West in the late 1950s. Since the early 1970s, a large body of scientific research has accumulated on its benefits to health, mental performance and development of the personality.[1] As a result, the technique is recommended by doctors, used in business and education as a stress reduction and self-development tool and has been used in criminal justice systems as a rehabilitation program.

The background to the Enlightened Sentencing Project

The Missouri project — called the ‘Enlightened Sentencing Project’ — has its origin in the search by Judge Mason for a program he could use with offenders appearing before him to give them the inner resources to deal with life situations that would otherwise be conducive to criminal conduct. Although the dominant approach to dealing with offenders in the United States over the last 20 to 30 years has been punitive, and Judge Mason himself has a reputation for imposing tough sentences, he considers that the criminal justice system has a duty to provide effective rehabilitation programs.

During his time as a practising lawyer, and on the bench, Judge Mason has been involved in task forces and community groups examining different approaches to offender rehabilitation. He has been frustrated by the inefficient use of criminal justice funding: ‘I see how much money we waste on things like boot camps and thinking that we can solve the problem by locking more people up. We just pour billions into approaches and techniques that don’t even have any research to support them’.[2] Indeed, although the prison population in the United States increased sixfold from 1972 until 1995, crime rates in 1994 were about the same as they were in 1980.[3]

Through his ongoing interest in offender rehabilitation he came into contact with research on the use of the Transcendental Meditation program as a rehabilitation tool in prisons. Both the philosophy behind the use of that program in rehabilitation and the results it has yielded in terms of psychological development, decreased recidivism, more positive behaviour, and decreased aggression and anxiety attracted his interest.

The thinking behind the use of the Transcendental Meditation program in rehabilitation is the concept emphasised by Maharishi of a connection between the quality of action and the quality of individual awareness.[4] Simply stated, the quality of action depends on the quality of thinking, the quality of thinking depends on the quality of individual awareness and the quality of individual awareness depends on the quality of its vehicle — the physical nervous system. The physical nervous system reacts to challenges from the environment. Stressors such as pollution, improper diet, family breakdown, child abuse, job loss, poverty, illness and grief impact on the physical nervous system. The reaction in mind and body to stressors is called stress. An accumulation of stress can adversely impact on the quality of functioning of mind and body.[5] It is a common experience that when we are highly stressed the quality of our thinking, speech and action may be adversely affected. If people have inadequate stress coping skills, they may turn to dysfunctional means of dealing with this stress.

For those who come into contact with the law, such means may include a resort to drugs, violence or theft. Maharishi puts it this way: ‘Crime, delinquency, and the different patterns of anti-social behaviour arise from a deep discontent of the mind; they arise from a weak mind and unbalanced emotions’.[6] In a lecture to the Law Institute of Victoria in November 1999 Judge Mason said: ‘No matter what our background, some people just don’t have the skills to cope with the kinds of things that can cause you to have low self-esteem, to feel bad, to feel stressed. Some people just don’t. Then they turn to things like alcohol or drugs.’

The concept that stress contributes to criminal behaviour gains support from within criminology. Agnew has suggested a connection between stress and crime in his revision of strain theory.[7] Research has found that stressful life events contribute to substance abuse, child abuse and delinquency.[8] Linsky and Strauss found that a high incidence of social stress as measured by a composite index including economic, family and social stressors such as unemployment, business failure and divorce, predicted maladaptive behaviour such as crime, disease and suicides.[9]

In his Australian lectures, Judge Mason suggested that stress is a key component of violent behaviour — including domestic violence — and that the practice of the Transcendental Meditation program could be a useful tool in helping to address it. Though acknowledging the understanding that often domestic violence arises from a sense of powerlessness in the perpetrator and the need to assert control, he suggested that an offender’s inability to deal with the stress of a challenge to his control might be the precipitating factor in a violent act. It could also be the case that the sense of powerlessness arises from social stress and the inability to deal with it. Indeed, stress as a cause of domestic violence is a key topic in domestic violence theory and research.[10]

The need then is to strengthen the stress coping skills of the individual to promote their rehabilitation. This approach recognises that social change to address the problem of social stress may be required to deal adequately with the problem of crime but also asserts that the individual needs the necessary resources to deal with life challenges in a constructive way.[11]

The Transcendental Meditation program is a simple, natural, effortless mental technique that produces a deep level of rest in the body and alertness in the mind. Maharishi describes it as:

an effortless procedure for allowing the excitations of the mind gradually to settle down until the least excited state of the mind is reached. This is a state of inner wakefulness with no object of thought or perception, just pure consciousness aware of its own unbounded nature.[12]

Research has found that this state of inner wakefulness is accompanied by a unique state of coherence and orderliness in the brain and deep physical rest as measured by decreased stress-related hormones in the blood and decreased respiration and heart rates.[13]

From the early 1970s an understanding developed that there was a ‘relaxation response’ whereby the body achieved a deeply restful state through the practice of any number of meditation and relaxation techniques. Recent research suggests that such an understanding is a myth, that each technique is unique in its effects on body and mind.[14] Therefore each technique must be evaluated on its own merits and the findings in relation to any one technique cannot be seen as necessarily applying to the others.

Rest is a natural healing mechanism for the body. Research has found that the rest gained during the practice of the Transcendental Meditation program dissolves deep rooted stress and fatigue creating greater balance and harmony in body and mind. It alleviates a range of stress-related disorders, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.[15] Other findings include increased self-actualisation, intelligence and creativity and improved health as measured by a decreased incidence of disease and reduced health care expenditure and a decrease in risk factors for coronary heart disease.[16] Research has found that offenders practising the program experience decreased aggression, anxiety and recidivism, increased psychological growth, increased participation in educational and recreational programs and improved sleeping patterns.[17] A forthcoming study has found that offenders who had learnt the program while in prison had 43.5% fewer subsequent convictions 15 years after release from prison as compared to controls.[18]

Essentially, Transcendental Meditation is a technique of individual empowerment in that first, the meditator becomes self-sufficient in the practice; secondly, the benefits of the practice accrue spontaneously from within the individual rather than being imposed from outside; and thirdly, the improvements in physiological and psychological functioning resulting from the practice facilitate more harmonious and effective interaction with the social environment. This especially appealed to Judge Mason:

This is something you could give an offender that didn’t require continuous visits with a counsellor; it didn’t require substituting one drug for another, like methadone treatment; it didn’t require continuous expensive programs — once they learned the technique they could just do it at home. And it gave the offender something that none of the other programs really gave them: something they could keep with them when they are standing on that street corner and someone is trying to push them into a fight or push them into ‘hey, let’s go steal this or lets go get some drugs here’ — something they can have inside that causes them to say, ‘No, this is not the right thing to do. I need to avoid that’.[19]

The concept of rehabilitation by the empowerment of the offender also appealed to Judge Forder: ‘I hope that the legal profession will realise that corrections … is a matter of human beings being able to take control of themselves … to become empowered to make the social system a part of their lives so that they can succeed’.[20]

In 1996, Judge Mason began to sentence offenders to practise the Transcendental Meditation program as a condition of probation. He has used it in relation to offenders he would normally place on probation. Other judges have also begun to refer offenders to the Enlightened Sentencing Project. Participation in the project is required in addition to other program requirements that the offender may need to address their problems. Indeed, this rehabilitation approach recognises that attending to internal needs such as improved stress coping ability and the development of life skills such as education and vocational training is likely to be the most effective means of rehabilitation.

Offenders participating in the project range in age from 20–40 years, with the majority between 25–35.[21] The age range has not been determined by requirements associated with learning the Transcendental Meditation technique, which can be learnt from the age of 10, but rather from the nature of cases coming before the court, the needs of offenders and the attitude of the judges. A broad range of offenders have participated in the project including those convicted of assaults, sexual offences, burglary, driving under suspension, and petty theft. A homicide offender was referred to the project at the end of serving a prison sentence.

Initially, participants attend a seven-step course of instruction in the Transcendental Meditation program. Then they meet twice a week for about 11 weeks for verification of the practice and classes on the mechanics and application of the program. The project encourages the participants to attend for verification of the practice each month for at least a year after instruction. It also encourages families of participants to be instructed in the Transcendental Meditation program.

Results of the Project

By November 1999, about 100 probationers had been referred to the Enlightened Sentencing Project and 69 completed the course. The remainder either did not turn up at all or, having attended the introductory lecture at the commencement of the course, decided to proceed no further. Only five of those who completed the course have been breached in relation to their probation order. The project found that positive reinforcement from probation officers was an important factor in an offender’s participation in the project.[22]

Judges, project participants and their families and probation officers have been impressed with the results of the Enlightened Sentencing Project. Probationers have reported decreased substance abuse, greater calm and happiness in activity, improved personal relationships, decreased aggression and increased self-esteem as a result of practising the Transcendental Meditation technique. Here are two experiences of project participants:

SB: Dear Judge Autrey, Since I’ve been practicing TM my life has become much better. My wife and kids have noticed a lot of happiness in me. I feel I am in control of myself now. My wife and I don’t argue and fight as we have in the past. We get along much better now, like we’ve fallen in love all over again. People that have been knowing me for years see me as a different person. The important thing is not what others think of me, but what I think of me. I have self-esteem now. I don’t drink and take drugs now. My behaviour has changed. I am more calm. I think and make some good choices now. I feel peace within myself. It was a blessing to be taught TM. I would never have thought something this easy could make such a big difference in my life. I wish that everyone could learn this. My record shows that I have a temper and a history of assaults. But now that I’ve been doing TM I know how to cope with my temper and not become violent.[23]
BC: When I first started TM I was in a gang on the streets, always into fights with other gangbangers. But as I continued to use TM I became more mature in life. What I mean is I have come to know life better and I am more steady at the things I do. TM made me a happier person and more friendly to people. Most people see the change in me, how I act, how I work, how I play — and they seem to like it. Even my friend’s mother can tell I’m becoming a new person from deep inside. I can’t thank Judge Autrey enough for giving me the chance to start over with my life.

Judge Mason also received positive feedback from the participants’ families:

The thing that I did not expect when I started this was the number of mothers, girlfriends and wives who sent me letters talking about how wonderful it is now to be with this man, how happy they are now to be with this man, thanking me, happy that the man was arrested and ended up in my court.[24]

Other judges referring offenders to the Enlightened Sentencing Project have also been impressed by the results:

Judge Forder: It has been a relief to have TM as an alternative to traditional methods of rehabilitation because after twenty years as a Circuit Court Judge, I have not seen any other significant change in the way that the court attempts to handle offenders.[25]
Judge Autrey: I have seen my probationers who participate in the TM program grow and develop in ways I have rarely seen in other probationers. They have a positive social attitude. They secure employment. They exhibit responsibility by maintaining positive probation reports. And, as curious as it may sound, they have an emotionally healthy appearance. By this I mean they do not appear to be stressed, anxious, nervous, or restless. These are considerable indicia of a responsible person with their life under control as opposed to life controlling them. In short that have taken responsibility for their lives.[26]

Discussion of the results

The results from the Enlightened Sentencing Project are from a case study and not from a controlled study. A quantitative study is needed to further verify the results. However, the results are in accord with the findings of earlier quantitative studies on prisoners practising the Transcendental Meditation program.[27] The project also remains on a small scale. Other US courts have not yet emulated the work of Judge Mason and his colleagues. It remains privately funded, despite its positive results and the research from prison projects using the Transcendental Meditation program.

In part, the fact that the Enlightened Sentencing Project has not inspired similar projects elsewhere can be attributed to the largely punitive approach to corrections in the United States — one that has been followed to some extent in Australia, particularly in jurisdictions with mandatory sentencing laws. In such an atmosphere, it is not easy for innovative approaches to rehabilitation to flourish.

Further, the very nature of the approach taken in the Enlightened Sentencing Project challenges existing social attitudes and conceptions of rehabilitation. In his lectures in Australia, Judge Mason noted that to some degree the West has a chauvinistic attitude to the East and the approaches to addressing life problems that it offers. The West has a tendency to think that it alone possesses the answers to its problems.

In the West, meditation has been associated with the contemplative life of recluses or with those leading alternative lifestyles rather than with people leading an active life in the world. The idea that active people could benefit from sitting down, closing their eyes and practising a mental technique has been foreign. However, this conception is gradually being dispelled with the growth in the number of people from all professions and walks of life practising meditation and the growth of scientific research on the benefits of the Transcendental Meditation program conducted by prominent research institutions. In a similar way, the approach to rehabilitation programs has generally been externally focused, in the sense of the offender actively doing something — work, education, counselling, methadone programs etc. — rather than them being self- sufficient in an inwardly directed mental practice.

Project challenges

Like any rehabilitation program, the Enlightened Sentencing Project has had its fair share of challenges, both internal and external. Like other projects, some offenders who are referred to the project do not attend or complete the classes. However, there is a generally high rate of completion and also a high rate of success for those who complete the classes.

Shortly after Judge Mason began to sentence offenders to practise the Transcendental Meditation technique as a condition of their probation, concern was raised by a civil liberties group and by some religious groups as to whether the offenders were being required to participate in a religious practice. The First Amendment prohibits a government from prescribing a religious practice and has been the subject of many cases before the Supreme Court of the United States over the years.

Judge Mason was convinced that the concerns were baseless in that the Transcendental Meditation technique is not a religious practice. It is purely a mechanical, mental technique requiring no specific beliefs or lifestyle. There are practitioners of all faiths and many who do not follow any religion. After many months of consultation and legal opinion, no further action was taken and the project continued. Similar concerns led to calls for the judge’s removal from the bench. However, Missouri’s Judicial Commission found no cause for the judge’s removal and dismissed the complaint. Judge Mason subsequently won his retention election.


The Enlightened Sentencing Project is a unique example of a judge, in seeking to perform his function of directing offenders into effective rehabilitation programs, initiating a rehabilitation program himself. In doing so he faced and addressed community concerns and questions from his State’s Judicial Commission. The success of his project inspired other judges to join him.

The Transcendental Meditation technique has not been used widely in Australia’s criminal justice systems. In isolated cases, offenders have learnt the technique. For example, on recommendation of a psychiatrist a magistrate referred one young man convicted of offences relating to indecent behaviour to the Transcendental Meditation program.[28] The psychiatrist reported significant improvement in the offender in terms of a reduction and then elimination of compulsive and obsessive behaviour as a result of practising the program. Further, the visit of Judge Mason and Judge Forder to Australia and the accumulating research on the beneficial use of the Transcendental Meditation technique in corrections elsewhere has inspired authorities to explore the feasibility of its use in prisons in Victoria. However, no such program has been implemented as yet.

Though to some the approach of the Enlightened Sentencing Project in instructing offenders in the Transcendental Meditation program may seem unusual, the results achieved suggest it has promise. It is an approach worthy of consideration by the judiciary, legal profession and criminal justice authorities as an alternative in sentencing and for use in the prison system. Given ongoing concerns about the problems of drugs and crime in our society, it is incumbent on us to consider viable alternative strategies.


[*] Michael King is Solicitor in Charge of the Goldfields Regional Office of Legal Aid Western Australia and Chairperson of the Goldfields Community Legal Centre. He is a consultant to the Enlightened Sentencing Project.

I am grateful to His Honour Judge David Mason, Her Honour Judge Anna Forder and the Director of the Enlightened Sentencing Project, Farrokh Anklesaria, for their assistance. I have drawn on discussions with them in the preparation of this paper.


[1] Sharma, Hari and Clarke, Christopher, Contemporary Ayur-Veda: Medicine and Research in Maharishi Ayur-Veda, Churchill Livingstone, 1998; Roth, Robert, Transcendental Meditation, Donald I Fine, 1994.

[2] Lecture delivered to the Law Institute of Victoria, 15 November 1999.

[3] Tonry, Michael and Hatlestad, Kathleen, Sentencing Reform in Overcrowded Times, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.5.

[4] Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Science of Being and Art of Living, Signet, 1968.

[5] Lovallo, W.R., Stress and Health: Biological and Psychological Interactions, Sage, 1997.

[6] Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, above, p.219.

[7] Agnew, Robert, ‘Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency’, (1992) 30 Criminology 47.

[8] Hoffman, J.P. and Su, S.S., ‘The Conditional Effects of Stress on Delinquency and Drug Use: A Strain Theory Assessment of Sex Differences’, (1997) 34 Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 46-78; Kotch, J.B., Browne, D.C., Ringwalt, C.L., Dufort, V., Ruina, E., Stewart, P.W. and Jung, J.-W., ‘Stress, Social Support and Substantiated Maltreatment in the Second and Third Years of Life’, (1997) 21 Child Abuse and Neglect 1025-1037.

[9] Linsky, A.S. and Straus, M.A., Social Stress in the United States: Links to Regional Patterns in Crime and Illness, Auburn House, 1986.

[10] Gelles, Richard, ‘Family Violence’ in Robert Hampton (ed.) Family Violence, Sage, 1999, pp.1-32.

[11] King, Michael, A Consciousness Based Approach to Reducing Crime and Violence: The Transcendental Meditation Program in Rehabilitation and Prevention, (in press) Journal of Offender Rehabilitation

[12] Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Creating an Ideal Society, Maharishi European Research University Press, 1977, p.123.

[13] Jevning, R., Wallace, R. & Beidebach, M., ‘The Physiology of Meditation: A Review. A Wakeful Hypometabolic Integrated Response’, (1992) 16 Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 415-424.

[14] Orme-Johnson, David and Walton, Kenneth, ‘All Approaches to Preventing or Reversing Effects of Stress are not the Same’, (1998) 12 American Journal of Health Promotion 297-99.

[15] Alexander, C., Robinson, P. and Rainforth, M. ‘Treating and Preventing Alcohol, Nicotine, and Drug Abuse through Transcendental Meditation’, (1994) 11 Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 13-87; Brooks, J.S. and Scarano, T., ‘Transcendental Meditation in the Treatment of post-Vietnam Adjustment’, (1985) 64 Journal of Counselling and Development 212-215; Eppley, K., Abrams, A.I. and Shear, J., ‘Differential Effects of Relaxation Techniques on Trait Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis’, (1989) 45 Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 957-74.

[16] Alexander, C., Rainforth, M. and Gelderloos, P., ‘Transcendental Meditation, Self-Actualization and Psychological Health: A Conceptual Overview and Statistical Meta-Analysis’, (1991) 6 Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 189-247; Cranson, R., Orme-Johnson, D., Dillbeck, M., Jones, C., Alexander, C. and Gackenbach, J. ‘Transcendental Meditation and Improved Performance on Intelligence-Related Measures: A Longitudinal Study’, (1991) 12 Personality and Individual Differences 1105-1116; Travis, F. ‘The TM Technique and Creativity: A Longitudinal Study of Cornell University Undergraduates’, (1979) 13 Journal of Creative Behavior 169-180; Orme-Johnson, D. ‘Medical Care Utilization and the Transcendental Meditation Program’, (1987) 49 Psychosoatic Medicine 493-507; Herron, Robert, Hillis, Stephen and Walton, Kenneth, ‘The Impact of Transcendental Meditation on Government Payments to Physicians in Quebec’, (1996) 10 American Journal of Health Promotion 208-16; Alexander, C., Barnes, V., Schneider, R., Langer, E., Newman, R., Chandler, H., Davies, J. and Rainforth, M, ‘A Randomised Controlled Study Trial of Stress Reduction on Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality in the Elderly: Results of 8 and 15 Year Follow-Ups’, (1996) 93 Circulation 629.

[17] For a review of the research, see: Dillbeck, M. and Abrams, A., ‘The Application of the Transcendental Meditation Program to Corrections’, (1987) 11 International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 111-132.

[18] Rainforth, M., Bleick, C., Alexander, C. and Cavanaugh, K., ‘Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Program on Recidivism Among Former Inmates of Folsom Prison: Survival Analysis of 15-Year Follow-Up Data’, (in press) Journal of Offender Rehabilitation

[19] Lecture delivered to the Law Institute of Victoria, 15 November 1999.

[20] Enlightened Sentencing Project Pamphlet, 1998.

[21] Personal communication with Farrokh Anklesaria, Director, Enlightened Sentencing Project, May 2000.

[22] Personal communication with Farrokh Anklesaria, Director, Enlightened Sentencing Project, February 2000.

[23] This experience and the one following have been supplied from the records of experiences of the participants in the Enlightened Sentencing Project.

[24] Lecture delivered to the Law Institute of Victoria, 15 November 1999.

[25] Letter from Judge Anna Forder in possession of the Enlightened Sentencing Project, February 2000.

[26] Letter from Judge Henry Autrey in possession of the Enlightened Sentencing Project, February 2000.

[27] See ref 17.

[28] Rigby, Byron, ‘The Neurophysiology of the Law: Sentencing Involving Transcendental Meditation in Australia’, unpublished paper delivered to the conference ‘The Enlightened Sentencing Project: An Interdisciplinary Perspective’, Maharishi Vedic College, Melbourne, 15 November 1999.

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