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One-size-fits-all plan won't help all offenders

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Beverly Branson Beverly Branson
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Beverly Branson is a psychologist with Clayman & Associates.

In an effort to solve the overcrowding in our state prisons and regional jails, the 2013 Legislature passed a bill to address substance abuse and recidivism. The law will permit early, supervised release of non-violent inmates at the judge's discretion, and the extension of drug court programs in all West Virginia counties. The bill was modeled after programs in other states where preliminary data show a reduction in recidivism in those states. The hope is that West Virginia will reap significant savings over the next several years and, more importantly, avoid construction of a new $200 million state prison.

The intent of the reforms is noble as it is estimated that 75 percent of all criminal activity is believed to be in some way related to substance abuse. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, two-thirds of all offenders will be re-arrested after release from incarceration and 40 percent of those arrested will be re-imprisoned. 

It is logical to address those individuals with drug issues because a majority of inmates profess that their drug abuse connects with their criminal behavior. To offer treatment as an alternative to imprisonment or a deterrent of repeating offenses makes sense but it cannot be taken lightly.

After personally interviewing over 15,000 inmates and performing extensive research, several important issues come to mind when considering this new law. We must recognize that there is a wide range of factors associated with substance abuse and addiction. Not only the type of drug, but barriers to participate in treatment may arise based on geography, transportation availability and the support that may be offered by family and peers. The severity of one's addiction, which includes the type, amount and period of time involved, must be considered. Co-existing medical, psychological and social problems add to the difficulties with maintaining abstinence. 

Sometimes drug abuse is only one component of a person's criminogenic profile, and individuals who have been in the legal system must be approached differently than those generally seen in the community in care settings. Therefore a blanket, one size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be successful. 

Because of the complexities, each participant in community-based programming should undergo thorough risk assessments. Proper classification of high-risk offenders will be paramount in order to reduce recidivism and use evidence-based approaches to treatment. Preferred risk management tools provide useful information about programming needs as well as identifying personality traits that may enhance or detract from success potential. 

Consequently, the approach must be multi-factorial requiring each inmate to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and placed in individualized programming. Literature on recidivism supports that the most intensive programming and treatment is most appropriate for inmates most likely to re-offend, whereas intensive treatment for low-risk offenders can actually increase recidivism rates. 

The most effective methods of treatment to reduce recidivism address more than just substance abuse issues. Rather, based on behavioral models and includes structured social learning, family involvement, and cognitive-behavioral techniques that target risk factors such as antisocial attitudes, antisocial friends, substance abuse, lack of empathy, and impulsivity. Programs based only on shaming the offender, scaring them "straight," drug education, client-centered approaches, or purely medical treatment are ineffective. 

The Legislature and governor have allocated $25 million over the next five years to provide for increased supervision in the early release program. Most of it is dog-eared for substance abuse treatment. While essential, simply prescribing drug court for every offender with substance abuse issues will not reduce the overall rate of recidivism. 

It is hoped that qualified professionals will be recruited to offer the services at various levels of intensity and proven effectiveness in line with the state of Oregon, which requires that 75 percent of funds spent for this issue go toward evidenced-based programs. It must be ensured that treatment programs comply with identified evidenced-based treatment strategies and that accurate accountability measures are implemented and monitored regularly. 

West Virginia must start somewhere and not undertake simple or quick answers to long-standing culturally engrained problems. Providing people with the opportunity to deal with the insidious effects of substance abuse is good, but it must be done as part of a total plan that addresses the multiple needs of each individual. Without social support, education and employment, the pain that drove people to seek comfort in drugs will not be alleviated and the potential for recidivism will remain high. A compassionate society that gives hope to individuals who take responsibility for their lives is the best option.