Parameters for image-map-2:{}
University of New Haven logo

Taking the "repeat" out of repeat offending

Intervention is proving more successful than prison at breaking the cycle of recidivism.

It’s no secret that prison is not a therapeutic environment. Its sole purpose has been the containment of offenders and the protection of the public.  Unfortunately, the rate of recidivism is stubbornly high for offenders who have been incarcerated.  Now, a realization of the growing population of individuals with mental illness and substance abuse problems in correctional institutions has led criminal justice agencies to embrace psychological interventions in an effort to reduce re-arrest rates and unnecessary incarceration. 

Many states are bridging the gap between criminal justice and psychology through the use of treatment-oriented sentences or interventions. An alternative to incarceration, this approach diverts generally low-level offenders from jail and prison and places them in community settings through various mechanisms such as Mental Health Court or Drug Court. These are problem-solving courts whose specific purpose is to treat mental health and substance abuse problems in the community in order to reduce recidivism.

University of New Haven Associate Professor of Psychology W. Amory Carr has written about approaches such as these for targeting criminal recidivism in mentally ill offenders. "Although diversion practices vary tremendously by specific agency and geographic location, Mental Health Courts place individuals in facilities with greater support than simple half-way houses," he says. "These can be residential facilities with a house manager who controls who enters and leaves the building and who also performs random searches and imposes curfew restrictions. There may also be a mental health staff member to resolve disputes and even administer medication, when prescribed.

"The first drug courts in the U.S. were developed 20 to 25 years ago and have since been found to be effective at reducing recidivism," he goes on. "Mental Health Courts have not existed as long as Drug Courts, but they’re showing promising results." In an article in the Community Mental Health Journal, which he co-authored with Dr. Merrill Rotter, he explains that these courts, as well as other correctional rehabilitation programs frequently make use of structured group and individual interventions that specifically target recidivism.

In addition, the interventions often use a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) format. According to Carr, CBT’s original focus was essentially intra-personal, i.e. helping the individual both feel and function better. However, in addressing criminal recidivism, the problem is inter-personal and anti-social. "Recidivism-focused CBT intervention requires more than an emphasis on just feeling better. There needs to be specific attention to interpersonal skills and acceptance of community standards for responsible behavior," he writes with co-author Rotter.

Specialty courts and CBT interventions are not the only scenarios where psychology is joining forces with criminal justice. In many community corrections programs — i.e. probation and parole — there are now dedicated officers for mentally ill offenders. This looks to be a promising strategy for improving probation completion rates among mentally ill supervisees. In addition, probation departments are referring appropriate clients to supervision sites in the community as a condition of their probation.

One such site is a New Haven organization called CREST — Community Reporting Engagement Support and Training. This is an enhanced day-reporting program that serves individuals involved in the criminal justice system who exhibit moderate impairment from a psychiatric condition, mental illness, or co-occurring disorder of a sub-acute or chronic nature. Clients are referred by criminal justice agents, such as a probation officer. CREST’s mission — "to bridge the efforts of the mental health and criminal justice systems to meet the needs of community safety" — is accomplished through consistent monitoring, structured skill building, illness management, relapse prevention, and recovery support services. Their program is considered a model in the State of Connecticut.

Thanks to his position as Consulting Clinical Psychology at EAC/TASC Bronx Mental Health Court, where he conducts assessments on mentally ill criminal defendants, Carr has first-hand experience with the complexity of the recidivism issue.

"We have to target criminogenic thinking — a way of thinking that supports criminality, such as mistaking wants for needs, or thinking that a crime can be 'repaired' by doing a good turn for someone. We not only seek to prevent low-level criminality from repeating itself but also from rising to the level of violent felony offenses. I believe the more we bring psychology into the criminal justice world, the more the recidivism rate will continue to drop."