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Saving Offender Rehabilitation and Reentry Programs
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 10/30/2017

Power-of-family I just wrote, Are Offender Rehabilitation Programs Dead? New DOJ Report, at Crime in America-Rehabilitation.

I offered a variety of research-based articles regarding offender reentry programs, and none seemed promising. The collective data indicates that programs for offenders don’t work, or make things worse, or have very limited results.

I strongly support programs for offenders; I’m simply suggesting that we can do better.

Comments

Reading the reactions to the article on social media, I understand that many are passionate about programs and will continue to support them regardless of the results. But at what point are we misleading both offenders and the public? What happened to, “Do no harm?”

Few Get Treatment

Are we at the point where we need to completely rethink our approach to programs for offenders? To answer that question, we need to examine how many offenders are currently getting access to programs.

If only two of twenty-five million addicts in the US receive drug treatment New York Times, and less than 20 percent of inmates suffering from drug abuse or dependence receive formal treatment, Crime in America-Treatment, it seems obvious that rehabilitation is not a public priority.

In studying jail inmates held outside of the facility, 5,714 inmates were in treatment programs (out of a total population of 687,033) in 2000. In 2009, that number fell to 2,082 (out of a total population of 837,833), Crime in America-Treatment in Jail.

“Only 11 Percent of Prison Inmates Get Drug Treatment,” Crime in America-Percent Getting Treatment.

Money for treatment for probation caseloads is almost nonexistent. It was 1 percent in 2005. It was 1 percent in 2015, Crime in America-Probation.

There are additional sources I could cite, but the bottom line is that the vast majority of offenders incarcerated or on community supervision do not get access to treatment during their current sentence. Even when they do, the inevitable issue is the quality of the interaction (i.e., substituting Narcotics Anonymous for individualized treatment).

Whether it’s mental health, substance abuse, education or job-related, programs are scarce.

Why Aren’t Programs Funded?

If programs are vital to reducing recidivism, why aren’t they funded?

The answer is that the collective data indicate that they either don’t work, or do not succeed with the great majority of participants.

With little confidence that programs produce desired goals, there is limited support for additional efforts.

Why Don’t They Work?

Leonard, you can’t offer skill-based programs to offenders without addressing the underlying problems that brought them to the justice system in the first place. You have to stabilize them first: drug treatment counselor.

I spoke to many people administering programs for offenders throughout my career. Before and after graduating from college I worked as a counselor or teacher for a street-gang project, a prison-based rehabilitation program and Job Corps.

The most cynical amongst us had a saying, what is a burglar with a GED and a welding certificate? The answer, a burglar with a GED and a welding certificate. We weren’t overly optimistic about the value of our efforts.

But let me return to my opening statement, to be successful, you have to address the underlying issues that brought a person into the justice system.

The Underlying Reasons

After speaking to hundreds of offenders and probing their lives either through programs or interviewing them for radio and television programs, I’m struck by the tragedy of their lives.

I’m not making excuses for their criminality; I’m just stating the obvious. More than half of prison and jail inmates meet criteria for drug dependence. Eighty percent or more have histories of substance abuse.

Most are victims of child abuse and neglect.

When you include alcohol, most offenders are current addicts in need of treatment. Add mental health concerns, and we come to the conclusion that the majority of offenders are clinically impacted, Crime in America-Clinical Impact.

Crime is not the exclusive providence of the economy or class or race or employment or education.

Even the best adjusted among us will struggle if there is racial prejudice or if educational systems are inadequate. But if that child enters school or society a beaten person, then little to nothing will work. I’ve heard the same thing from educators many times.

Trauma

One of the biggest predictors of children’s ability to be resilient in the face of trauma is having loving and caring adults in their lives. Studies show that adults who provide consistent emotional and physical support can buffer the “fight or flight” stress response in children, Children Exposed to Violence.

Exposure to violence can limit children’s potential and increase their likelihood of becoming involved in the juvenile or criminal justice system. These children are often more likely to develop a substance use disorder; suffer from depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder; and fail to thrive in school, according to the OJJDP-sponsored National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV II) conducted in 2011.

Mental Health-Key Determinant

The reason why so many engage in criminal activity or make bad decisions or embrace violence is that they have mental health or emotional issues, Crime in America-Mental Health.

The major underlying issue that we need to address if we want to improve the results of prison or criminal justice programs is mental health. Substance abuse is a co-occurring disorder that should be addressed simultaneously.

Just Mental Health?

The programs available to address the needs of offenders are simply inadequate as to their availability or design or implementation.

It’s time for a radical rearrangement in our efforts to assist offenders. Take all of the money, take all of the personnel, and focus on metal and behavioral health. Additional programs won’t work without the proper foundation.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than two million people are arrested and booked into jails each year. A 2010 survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with mental illness are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, and 18 times more likely to find a bed in the criminal justice system than at any state and civil hospital.

There are endless citations of prisons now being the primary response to mental health issues in the US.

PTSD

When a combat veteran returns home, he often has PTSD. It seems impossible to address the need for education or employment until we address mental health issues.

If we understand this for veterans, why don’t we use the same philosophy for offenders?

For many caught up in the criminal justice system, and who live in high-crime areas, they have seen so many hurt, abused or shot that their lives reek of uncertainty.

Between 75 and 93 percent of youth entering the juvenile justice system annually in this country are estimated to have experienced some degree of trauma, Children and Trauma.

Within that world of uncertainty, where violence is used as a tool that protects you, your family, your children and your possessions, force or the projection of power becomes instinctive.

Like the characters in Game of Thrones, offenders come to understand that this is a dangerous and harsh world where you survive through strength and intimidation.

Child Abuse

Childhood trauma is a huge factor within the criminal justice system,” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at Cornell University and co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect. “It is among the most important things that shapes addictive and criminal behavior in adulthood, New York Times.

A new study of inmates in a New York prison found that 68 percent of the sample reported some form of childhood victimization and 23 percent reported experiencing multiple forms of abuse and neglect, including physical and sexual abuse. These findings provide support for the belief that the majority of incarcerated offenders have likely experienced some type of childhood abuse or neglect, NIJ.

The authors find that child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability that an individual engages in many types of crime, Child Abuse.

A National Institute of Justice study indicated that being abused or neglected as a child increased the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 59%. Abuse and neglect also increased the likelihood of adult criminal behavior by 28% and violent crime by 30%, CDC.

The vast majority of women offenders I interviewed were sexually abused as children multiple times someone they knew.

The vast majority of offenders I interviewed were beaten, abused or neglected as children.

A 2014 Department of Justice study shows that 60 percent of children nationwide are exposed to violence, crime, or abuse; consequences include poor school performance, drug and alcohol abuse, long-term physical and psychological harm, and risk of future victimization and suicide, Exposure to Violence.

Between life as a whipped child and being surrounded by violence, what you would you expect the outcome to be?

Summary

I reassert my support for programs for offenders. We must have something beyond incarceration to manage the offender population. If it were up to me, all offenders would have access to high-quality programs addressing their individualized needs. But nothing like that is happening anywhere in the country.

At some point, we are going to have to deal with child abuse and neglect as a driver of crime.

There needs to be an immediate call for a national conference to examine why the results are so disappointing. We need to do better. Cancer results were small in the past but we kept trying, and data now indicate some optimism (i.e., the remarkable improvement in deaths from breast cancer).

But for the moment, I’m suggesting that we focus almost exclusively on mental health and the co-occurring issue of substance abuse.

If there is inadequate funding, and few get treatment, we can’t be all things to all people. We must pick our priorities. Little will happen until we stabilize offenders both in prison and on parole and probation.

I believe that until we do, we will continue to have disappointing results with programs that are supposed to reduce recidivism.

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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