Specialty mental health probation means fewer rearrests

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Placing people with mental illness who have been arrested on “specialty mental health probation” could lead to fewer rearrests than placing them on traditional probation, a new study suggests.

“Specialty probation holds substantial promise as a method for reducing mass incarceration for people with mental illness…”

Each year, some two million people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses are arrested for various crimes, inadvertently turning the US correctional system into the nation’s primary provider of inpatient psychiatric care. The new study, however, may offer a partial solution.

Researchers studied the supervision and outcomes of 359 offenders with mental illness, comparing those who had been placed on traditional probation against those on “specialty mental health probation,” a program in which probation officers with mental health expertise use a more individualized, treatment-oriented approach.

Their findings, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Psychiatry, show that 52 percent of traditional probationers were rearrested over a two-year follow-up period, compared to 29 percent of specialty probationers.

“We found that specialty officers had better relationships with probationers, participated more in probationers’ treatment, and relied more on positive compliance strategies than traditional officers,” says study lead author Jennifer Skeem, a professor of social welfare and of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Skeem and fellow researchers launched the study in 2006, recruiting probationers with mental illnesses in two demographically similar urban areas of Texas and California. About half of offenders were placed on specialty probation while the other half were on regular probation.

For the first year of the study, researchers interviewed probationers and their officers three times. Next, they obtained FBI arrest records to assess which probationers had reoffended in up to a five-year period. All probationers were followed for at least two years.

In their analysis, researchers found that the odds of rearrest for people on regular probation were more than two-and-a-half times higher than for those on special probation at two years, and that the benefits of specialty probation lasted for up to five years.

“Specialty probation holds substantial promise as a method for reducing mass incarceration for people with mental illness,” Skeem says.

Moreover, she adds, “prisons and jails spend two to three times more money on offenders with mental illness but rarely see improvements in public safety. This is one of the reasons that more than 375 US counties have joined the Stepping Up Initiative, a national effort to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.”

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Additional coauthors of the study are from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, and UC Berkeley.

Source: UC Berkeley