EVERY YEAR, Oregon releases nearly 3000 inmates from its penitentiaries. Within three years, about one-third of those people will return to prison. It is what critics of the state's penal system call a revolving door. But these same critics are doing more than simply finger-pointing.

Discouraged by the reform efforts of prisons, a handful of individuals around the Pacific Northwest have begun to advocate for a new school of thought on post-incarceration rehabilitation. What is emerging is so-called "cognitive-behavioral intervention." These programs import the soul-searching normally reserved for New Age yuppies into inmate reform programs. It is a dramatic shift from the heavy-handed rehab programs. What is even more surprising is that early reports and studies are showing remarkable success.

"I spent a lot of years chasing people around with a badge and a gun," said parole officer Carl Reddick, "until I was exposed to this 'cog' stuff.'" In 1995, Reddick helped launch the Oregon Cognitive Network, based on the idea that an individual's pattern of thinking drives one towards crime, not external factors like peers or opportunity.

Swayed by early research on moral- cognitive programs, in 1997, Chip Shields pulled together grants from private foundations and donations from individuals to launch Better People in N Portland. "If our clients come in and you start talking about setting goals," said Shields, "you might as well be pissing in the wind." He added, "you need to lay the foundation before they set their own goals."

The idea behind organizations like Better People is that there are different levels of reasoning--or, what they call a "moral ladder." At the bottom is hedonism, a myopic search for pleasure and personal gain, an attitude that can pave the road towards prison. At the top is a view of oneself in society. From that vantage, an individual is most concerned with the welfare of others--children, family, neighbors, or even strangers.

Participants vote whether to accept other released inmates into the Better People program. At one recent meeting, a tall, middle-aged woman stood in front of a group of six men and told a downward spiraling story about drugs, crime, and abandoning her family; She landed in prison twice. When she finished, she left the room. Five hands went up. One abstained. Accepted, she will be expected to complete a workbook that systematically sorts through her perceptions and morals. The chapters have titles like "Escaping Your Own Prison" and "You're Normal, So What Do You Do Now?"

While these programs spend time tinkering with ethical foundations and introspection, in concrete terms, Better People tries to place former inmates in jobs. Last year, the organization placed 61 people in jobs. "There aren't that many organizations that say, 'all right, you made a mistake, now let's move forward,'" said Anthony Spears, who completed Better People's program this year. He was in prison for attempted murder. Currently, he works at Varicast in N Portland. Spears added, "making commitments and keeping them is one of my biggest tasks."

Better People sets a target for job retention at a lofty 70 percent. After its first year of operation, they fell short, with 61 percent still employed. This year, however, they are nearing their goal. Moreover, studies of similar moral-cognitive programs indicate that they reduce recidivism by more than 30 percent in the long term.