Individuals with serious mental disorder are grossly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. In fact, the largest providers of inpatient psychiatric service in the U.S. are the nation’s three largest jails. The most common criminal justice disposition by far is probation. Compared to their relatively healthy counterparts, probationers with mental disorder are twice as likely to have their community supervision revoked and return to incarceration.
This problem has received substantial policy attention over the past decade. Virtually all programs for this group assume that mental illness is the direct cause of, and solution to, the problem. Their primary emphasis is linkage with psychiatric services in the community. In probation, the recommended policy solution is specialty mental health caseloads. In contrast with traditional agencies, specialty agencies assign probationers with mental disorder to small, specialized caseloads that are supervised by officers with interests or training in mental health. Their supervision philosophy emphasizes not only “control” (protection of public safety) but also “care” (offender rehabilitation) and advocacy for mental health treatment.
In this longitudinal, multi-informant study of 360 probationers with mental disorder, we are evaluating the effectiveness of specialty supervision. Our results indicate that specialty supervision works: Compared with those on traditional supervision, probationers under specialty supervision are substantially less likely to be re-arrested over a multi-year follow-up period. However, the program works for different reasons than those expected. It works not by reducing psychiatric symptoms, but instead by promoting good correctional practice. For example, specialty officers establish firm, fair, and caring relationships with probationers, which facilitates better outcomes than traditional authoritarian relationships. Combined with other research, this study suggests that offenders with mental disorder have much in common with their non-disordered counterparts. To achieve better criminal justice outcomes for this group, it is important to look beyond evidence-based mental health treatment to also include evidence-based correctional practices.
We have begun to publish the results of this study, which is among the first to shed light on mechanisms of effective supervision for this group. We are working with the Council of State Governments to translate this research into principles of “what works” for this population to facilitate public health and public safety. A more sophisticated understanding of the nature of the problem is informing improvements in practice that better facilitate community integration for this high risk, high need group.
This study is funded by:
If your agency is interested in collaborating with us to study evidence-based correctional interventions for probationers or parolees with mental disorder, please click here.