(Chicago) – TASC submitted comments for the May 19 briefing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Collateral Consequences: The Crossroads of Punishment, Redemption, and the Effects on Communities.
The briefing focused on the barriers to successful community reentry for formerly incarcerated individuals. According to the Commission, “They may face numerous barriers to reentry, including denial of governmental assistance designed to assist with finding employment. These collateral consequences affect families of the formerly incarcerated in a multitude of ways. For decades, communities of color have been disproportionately represented in the rates of felony convictions, and therefore are hardest hit.”
These barriers are mirrored in Illinois, and are experienced by TASC clients, even decades after they have paid their debt to society and resumed a law-abiding life. Barred access to employment and housing opportunities also create added challenges for individuals who are also striving to overcome substance use and mental health disorders.
Below is a synopsis of TASC’s comments, offering observations from decades of experience working to support diversion to community-based behavioral health treatment for men and women involved in the justice system, as well as reentry support following release from incarceration:
[Barriers to reentry and disproportionate minority contact are among] the reasons that TASC actively pursues strategies and opportunities that reduce the number of people entering the justice system. We seek to divert people away at every intervention point, and we promote avenues to health and recovery in the community so individuals do not return to the system.
We worked with and drafted reports on behalf of the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study (DJIS) Commission and Illinois Racial and Ethnic Impact [REI] Research Task Force) to evaluate and address disparities in the justice system. We conducted several surveys of diversion programs across the country and in Illinois that prevent criminal convictions on record, offering observations and recommendations for improvement and expansion.
We seek ways to improve access to healthcare coverage for those who come in contact with the justice system. Recently we have collaborated with jurisdictions in exploring law enforcement diversion practices for drug-involved individuals, a need that has become even more visible and accentuated in the midst of the opioid crisis.
We recognize that there are many individuals in the justice system who are less likely to return to the system if they have access to behavioral health services, and we know that a criminal record acts as a barrier to recovery, restored citizenship, and community reintegration. Improving access to and connecting justice-involved populations to community-based services may help reduce the racial disparities that exist throughout the criminal justice system. It is good health policy. It is good justice policy. It is good public policy.
In our decades of work in these fields, we have made a number of observations about the state of safe, responsible criminal justice diversion that we hope will inform the Commission’s work.
- The criminal justice system has become a de facto societal response to substance use and mental illness. Across the U.S., criminal justice systems are managing record numbers of people, with rates of substance use and mental health disorders that are much higher than those among the general public. More jurisdictions are focusing efforts to leverage resources toward management of these disorders in the community instead of the justice system, seeking to prevent taxpayer costs associated with incarceration and recidivism, as well as to support restored citizenship and second chances.
- Numerous factors have led to broad-based calls for criminal justice reform. In recent years, a confluence of factors has created fertile ground for broad-based improvements to criminal justice policy and practice. These factors have included overburdened courts, crowded jails and prisons, strained government budgets, advances in the science of drug use intervention and recovery, shifting public attitudes about drug policy, awareness of the negative and residual impacts of justice involvement on families and communities, attention on the disparate burden of justice policies on racial/ethnic minority communities, and a preponderance of research on the effectiveness and cost efficiency of alternatives to incarceration.
- Diversion policy should be focused on systems rather than programs. Modern justice policy is beginning to adopt public health strategies, focusing on broad-based, systemic intervention, and the application of the minimum but appropriate amount of supervision, sanctions, accountability, services, and resources to achieve the intended result.
- Meaningful diversion can happen at any point before conviction. Initiatives can occur at points of contact with law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders, pretrial services and probation, the judiciary, and even the jail. In cases where diversion before conviction isn’t an option, treatment-based alternatives to incarceration can prevent recidivism, taxpayer costs, and deleterious effects of confinement.
- Evidence-based practices should inform decision-making. The most effective response to justice-involved individuals with substance use and mental health issues is a locally defined balance of supervision, accountability, and community treatment and support. What is deemed appropriate should be driven by the ever-expanding base of research and data regarding which intervention models best serve a given population at a given point of justice involvement. A risk-needs-responsivity (RNR) approach offers particular promise in this context. Considered a best practice for criminal justice populations, this approach assesses both the risk of recidivism as well as needs related to substance use, mental health, and other social and environmental conditions, and determines the appropriate type and dose of treatments and other services necessary to maximize justice and health outcomes.
- Responses should be data-driven, which may mean changes in methods and resource allocation related to data collection. Justice, health, and community resources should be allocated to those programs that demonstrate the greatest capacity to reduce recidivism, protect public order and safety, promote public health, and promote equal and fair access to alternative options, while also mitigating the need for costly justice supervision. These determinations will be most successful if uniform data are collected and used—including measures related to the race/ethnicity of participants—and if programs take formal steps to develop standardized outcome measures (cost-, public safety-, and public health-based), and measure, analyze, monitor, and share results.
- Arbitrary prohibitions on eligibility are counter-productive. Many jurisdictions still set limits on participation in diversion programs based on offense history or type, such as accepting only people with first-time or “low-level” offenses. Instead, jurisdictions can adopt strategies and interventions that focus on those individuals most likely to recidivate, and that consider factors other than just current charge and criminal history in determining an intervention plan (for example, through the use of individualized risk and needs assessments). The next generation of diversion programs should be able to determine and provide the appropriate level of services and justice supervision for each individual.
- The field is continuing to evolve. The development of a common, shared language to discuss diversion and alternatives to incarceration is still in process. The need for clarity and specificity around the description of programs and models will be of increasing importance in the growing exchange of ideas, innovations, and best practices.
We are committed to continuing our work to connect people involved in or at risk for involvement in the justice system with community-based treatment and services for behavioral health conditions, to promote and support diversion and alternative options that prevent criminal convictions on record whenever appropriate and possible, and to advance policies and practices that reduce disproportionate minority contact with the justice system.