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Diversion of nonviolent substance abuse parolees: putting research into practice.

M.D. was preparing himself for the worst. Based on past experience,

he knew what the parole system had in store for him, or at least he thought he did. He had been in and out of custody for most of the past 15 years for a variety of nonviolent offenses, including burglary and controlled, dangerous substance charges, and figured he was going back to jail yet again for drinking beer, a violation of his parole conditions. M.D. decided that it would be best to be honest with his parole officer this time and to admit his return to alcohol usage. He just wanted to get it over with and had already prepared his girlfriend for his return to custody. M.D. had put his affairs in order and was hoping to be out of jail by next summer. What he did not expect was another chance. Within 48 hours of his most recent visit to his parole officer, M.D. was placed in a residential substance abuse treatment facility for a minimum of 90 days as part of the New Jersey State Parole Board's new direct diversion program for nonviolent offenders.

As part of an ongoing agenda to create a more balanced and effective casework approach to parole supervision, the New Jersey State Parole Board adopted a new operational philosophy in the fall of 2003. In lieu of routinely arresting parole violators for drug or alcohol usage, a new policy was implemented to divert ex-offenders with chronic substance abuse problems out of the parole revocation process and place them directly into appropriate treatment facilities with little or no time spent in custody awaiting a formal hearing. During 2004, as part of this new initiative, a total of 634 parolees were diverted into one of the parole board's privately contracted residential treatment programs for periods ranging from 90 to 180 days. The 634 parolees, who prior to the state parole board's new community programs direct diversion initiative could have been returned to prison for a period of 12 months, will now be receiving much-needed treatment for their addictions. An additional benefit is that this diversion will be accomplished at a significant savings to taxpayers when compared with reincarceration. The New Jersey Department of Corrections reports that the annual institutional cost is approximately $28,000 per inmate, or almost $77 per day. In comparison, the cost for placing the offender in one of the residential diversionary programs ranges from approximately $46 to $60 per day. With the anticipated increase of residential treatment facility bed space contracted by the New Jersey State Parole Board in 2005, the savings could be appreciable.

The Logic and the Research Behind Diversion

The main concern for any community corrections agency is the implementation of programs that have great potential to implement change in ex-offenders. The question of "what works?" has been asked time and time again. In 1974, Robert Martinson released "What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform," a study that revealed less than promising outcomes of several rehabilitation programs (52 percent of the programs examined were not found to be successful) and the media ran with it, trumpeting "nothing works." Today, researchers and criminal justice professionals realize the errors in Martinson's study and have found that many programs do work and can reduce recidivism. Thus far, a lot of energy has been placed on examining program effectiveness of pretrial intervention on probationers and on prison inmates. One area given less attention in the attempt to reduce recidivism is with parolees. However, with the imprisonment binge and the reentry initiative taken by the federal government and followed by state governments, this error is being remedied. In order to reduce prison crowding and to address the root of criminal behavior, many justice agencies are now focusing on diversionary programs at the parole stage.

Diversion redirects people from the justice system into a social or community service agency thereby allowing them to obtain much-needed help. Diversion has its roots in labeling theory, the idea that a person processed through the criminal justice system will be more stigmatized than a person handled informally, as well as in the idea that incarceration can do more damage than good. In 1967, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the establishment of services to divert youths from the justice system. (1) As a result, communities all over the nation established youth and adult diversion programs. Diversion quickly came to be viewed as a cost-cutting way to reduce crowding in juvenile detentions and secure facilities, as well as in adult prisons and jails.

The incentives for diversion for ex-offenders with a history of substance abuse cannot be ignored. It has long been known that there is an association between substance abuse and criminal activity. However, research has long found that in most cases drug use and abuse alone does not lead to criminal activity. Criminal activity often commences in congruence with the commencement of drug use, thus mutually exacerbating the offender's problems. Drugs also tend to work as a disinhibitor to the maintenance of socially acceptable behaviors. (2) However, it cannot be ignored that drug addiction in many cases does lead to criminal activity for the purpose of supporting the habit. For whatever reason, the association exists and the problem must be addressed. A return to prison does not seem to be the answer for these offenders.

Diversion also works to allow the offender the opportunity to maintain ties to family and conventional organizations in society. Research has found that social ties to fellow inmates strengthen with time while familial ties weaken. (3) Additionally, most offenders will return to their pre-incarceration communities, where these ties have weakened over time, expecting to receive the social support needed to successfully complete parole. For the inmate, the combination of a lack of prison programs designed to provide job skills, life skills and substance abuse rehabilitation; the weakened familial support; and a renewed confrontation with their enduring social problems that led to the ex-offender's predicament often lead to new offenses or technical violations. As a result, it is logical to assume that an ex-offender should be allowed to remain in the community when the parole violation does not involve a new criminal offense. The New Jersey State Parole Board has advanced with this logical approach, as it is supported by research and is putting this research into practice.

Much of the research has focused on diversion in the early stages of criminal justice processing, such as at the pre-arrest or post-arrest stage, at pretrial intervention, or at the sentencing stage. Research on drug court effectiveness (diversion from criminal court processing) has found that attending treatment is effective in decreasing re-offending. (4) Other social science research has found that diversion programs are effective in reducing recidivism among juvenile delinquents, while still others have found success in diversion for those identified as mentally ill with a history of substance abuse. (5) These studies have revealed promise for diversion as a mechanism to reduce recidivism. It is obvious that the idea that "nothing works" is passe. Taking this knowledge into account, the New Jersey State Parole Board has implemented several diversion programs for nonviolent parolees with a history of drug abuse. With the proper implementation of the new programs, the task now becomes to examine their effectiveness on ex-offenders like M.D.

The Board's Community Programs

The New Jersey State Parole Board's Community Programs Unit is committed to providing individuals under parole supervision with a full spectrum of assistance in the form of community-based treatment programs, thereby hoping to break the seemingly endless reincarceration cycle for nonviolent offenders with extensive substance abuse histories. According to Kevin McHugh, director of the Community Programs Unit, incarcerating parolees for using drugs is ineffective and would eventually return them to the community ill equipped to deal with their addictions. The unit was created to give parole officers another treatment option when managing their caseloads and also to give parolees every chance to succeed. The program is designed to divert suitable candidates out of the revocation re-parole custody cycle, and into one of several inpatient programs, where they would receive intensive substance abuse and life-skills counseling in a residential and/or therapeutic setting. If the participant satisfactorily completes the program, he or she is returned to the community to resume the remainder of their parole trial, bolstered by an appropriate aftercare plan developed by program staff and parole officers. If the offender leaves the program without permission or is discharged prior to satisfactory completion for non-compliance with the program, he or she is placed in custody and reinserted into the parole revocation process.

The implementation of the new diversion program is part of an ongoing paradigm shift for the state parole board--away from the traditional punitive response to technical parole violations, to a more balanced approach incorporating both public safety and a treatment-oriented modality. Recognizing the futility in returning a high rate of parole violators to the state prison system for technical violations, parole officers are now evaluating each case on its own merits, where the needs of the offender are weighed against the seriousness of the violations and his or her potential risk to the community. In the case of M.D., there was no history of violent offenses, so the perceived risk to the community in his case was considered minimal.

The Community Programs Unit offers four types of diversionary programs to the parolees it supervises. Criteria for assignment to a specific program depend on the therapeutic needs of the individual and the level of increased supervision desired by the agency.

Day Reporting Centers (DRC). Nonresidential day programs offer a variety of substance abuse and job-skills programs to parolees as a graduated sanction alternative to incarceration. This is the least restrictive alternative and is not strictly limited to offenders who would otherwise be facing revocation. A large percentage of referrals to the DRC are parolees in need of substance abuse counseling, vocational or life-skills training. The state parole board is currently contracted with eight DRC facilities and has recently increased the number of program slots available, providing treatment for up to 75 parolees in each center. The parole board also hopes to add two additional DRC locations before the end of the year. Participants in this program are monitored daily by a parole officer assigned to act as a liaison to the facility. The purpose of this program is to allow parolees the opportunity to maintain normal family and community ties while getting the treatment and training they need to increase their chances of success.

Half-Way Back. This program involves contracted residential treatment facilities providing a more structured environment for higher-needs offenders in lieu of reincarceration. The program has a maximum stay of 180 days, and treatment is structured to the needs of the individual. Half-Way Back provides participants with a variety of counseling services, including substance abuse, anger management, job skills, academic assistance, and reentry planning and aftercare referrals to community providers. The state parole board currently contracts with five Half-Way Back facilities and can accommodate up to 630 parolees statewide.

Mutual Agreement Program. This is a highly structured program for offenders with psychiatric and behavioral problems related to long-term addiction. The Mutual Agreement Program is comprehensive in nature and is operated in partnership with the New Jersey DOC and the Department of Health. It has a reentry component in place in most counties statewide, where continuing aftercare and outpatient counseling are provided to program graduates. Many participants can be diverted to the Mutual Agreement Program at various stages during the parole revocation process as an alternative to reincarceration.

Re-entry Substance Abuse Program (RESAP). RESAP is a residential substance abuse treatment program for nonviolent offenders with a chronic history of substance abuse. Case study M.D. was placed in RESAP, which is geared toward parolees who have recently relapsed and is provided as an alternative to the traditional response of reincarceration. RESAP can last up to 180 days for those individuals in need of long-term treatment or those who have never been exposed to any significant prior treatment. RESAP includes assessment, individual and group counseling for drug and alcohol dependency, stress and anger management, family and life skills, and relapse prevention. RESAP has a core element of reentry discharge planning with a coordinated effort to continue treatment for the participant upon return to the community. At this time, the state parole board is contracting with three RESAP providers to provide this service to 150 parolees.

Looking to the Future

"What works" is not a new focus of criminal justice: instead, it is a rediscovery and renewed commitment to rehabilitating the offender. This time the focus is better situated within the research findings on what works. One must not be absorbed with the notion that parole is getting soft on crime. The reasons for moving toward diversion, as they are based in research findings, include reducing recidivism, which, in turn, is a focus on the safety of the public. In being true to putting research into practice, the final step will require the parole board to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs to ensure that they continue to meet the needs of the offender, while providing the agency with a cost-effective and desirable alternative to the reincarceration of nonviolent parolees.


(1) Sheldon, R.G. and W.B. Brown. 2003. Criminal justice in America: A critical view. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

(2) Belknap, J. 2001. The invisible women: Gender, crime and justice. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth.

(3) Glaser, D. 1964. The effectiveness of a prison and parole system. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

(4) Gottfredson, D.C. 2003. The effects of drug treatment and supervision on time to rearrest among drug treatment court participants. Journal of Drug Issues, 33(2):385-412.

(5) Lattimore P.K., N. Broner, R. Sherman, L. Frisman and M.S. Shafer. 2003. A comparison of prebooking and postbooking diversion programs for mentally ill substance-using individuals with justice involvement. Contemporary Journal of Criminal Justice, 19(1):30-64.

Richard Butler is regional supervisor of the New Jersey State Parole Board. Venessa Garcia is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Kean University in Union, N.J.
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Author:Butler, Richard; Garcia, Venessa
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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