Mentally ill offenders who are placed on “specialty mental health probation” — a program in which probation officers with mental health expertise offer a more individualized, treatment-oriented approach — are far less likely to re-offend than those who are placed in traditional probation, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.
The promising new intervention may help tackle the current problem of nearly two million people with severe mental disorders (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) entering the U.S. correctional system each year.
For the study, the researchers analyzed the supervision and outcomes of 359 offenders with mental illness, comparing those who had been placed on traditional probation with those on the new specialty mental health probation.
Their findings show that 52 percent of those on traditional probation were re-arrested over a two-year follow-up period, compared to only 29 percent of those on specialty probation.
“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,” said study lead author Jennifer Skeem, a professor of social welfare and of public policy at UC Berkeley.
Beginning in 2006, the researchers recruited probationers with mental illnesses in two demographically similar urban areas of Texas and California. About half of the offenders were put on specialty probation while the other half were on regular probation.
For the first year of the study, probationers and their officers were interviewed three different times. Next, the researchers obtained FBI arrest records to assess which probationers had re-offended in up to a five-year period. All offenders on probation were followed for at least two years.
The final results show that the odds of re-arrest for people on regular probation were more than two-and-a-half times greater 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 said.
Moreover, she added, “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 U.S. counties have joined the Stepping Up Initiative, a national effort to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.”
The findings are published in the Journal of the American Medical Association — Psychiatry.