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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
The National Institute of Justice defines reentry as “the transition from life in jail or prison to life in the community.” Offenders returning to the community from periods of incarceration can have a significant impact on public safety in their communities; one way to reduce this impact is by addressing the barriers to successful reentry. One of these barriers is mental illness.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 21 percent of U.S. adults, or 52.9 million people, experienced mental illness in 2020. For incarcerated people, those rates are much higher; the American Psychological Association reports that “64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prisoners, and 45 percent of federal prisoners” have reported mental health concerns. Approximately half the people in U.S. jails and over one third of the population of U.S. prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness. During reentry, mental illness complicates an already difficult path for prisoners returning home.
The Court Services Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) in Washington, D.C., recognizes the importance of integrating mental health needs with community supervision. Marcus Hodges, Associate Director of the Office of Community Supervision & Intervention Services (OCSIS), discussed how CSOSA works to create successful outcomes for offenders with a history of mental illness. Director Hodges believes that lack of communication and information sharing is one of the greatest barriers to successful reentry, for offenders with and without mental illness.
Hodges stated that, “Communication within community corrections is sometimes not the best; there have been great strides, but communication about high-needs persons who need services right away should be improved. People coming back into the community should not have to just get in line, they should be able to get the services that they need immediately.”
One thing CSOSA does to mitigate this problem, according to Director Hodges, is to begin the reentry process up to six months before an offender’s release into the community. By starting the reentry this early, CSOSA can establish a plan for identifying and coordinating necessary services so that they are available to offenders upon release.
Hodges also notes that enhanced communication efforts between the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and CSOSA has allowed for improved transitions for inmates returning to Washington, D.C., from various BOP facilities. Additionally, collaborative efforts between corrections agencies, community-based organizations, and community partners have supported the development of a growing network and reentry community.
According to Hodges, “Corrections is not a perfect entity, and the corrections community needs to consistently seek and receive information from the community at large to bridge the gap between corrections and community.”
In addition to addressing barriers created by the lack of communication among corrections entities and between corrections and the community, CSOSA has created two behavioral health teams. This behavioral health unit merges community corrections and mental health services to ensure that offenders can remain stable in the community. The efforts of the Behavioral Health Unit support the enhancement of public safety and reduction of recidivism, both integral parts of CSOSA’s mission.
The CSOSA mental health unit partners with the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) allowing CSOSA to begin offering mental health services to offenders immediately. This partnership allows offenders who have undiagnosed mental illness to get assessed so that proper care can be initiated.
CSOSA’s partnership with the DBH, and other community-based mental health providers, enables the CSOSA to provide a parallel track of mental health care alongside community supervision. In addition to receiving care from mental health professionals, offenders on probation, parole, or supervised release can be connected with peer mentors to help them navigate their mental illness. Community Supervision Officers (CSO) are also able to communicate with mental health providers to determine if offenders are compliant with their mental health programs, including proper medication management, and, when necessary, stage collaborative interventions to get persons in need back on track.
Like most agencies, CSOSA has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created another barrier for clients with more severe or pervasive mental illness. Unlike reentering offenders under general supervision where the transition to virtual services was easy, offenders with mental illness rely heavily on routines, and any shift in routine can mean a shift in compliance with the conditions of their release. Recognizing this, CSOSA ensured that Behavioral Health Unit staff remained on site to ensure that offenders were able to maintain compliance.
The Behavioral Health Unit has also recognized that some clients with mental illness may also face homelessness. To address the difficulties that offenders who are transient have with travelling across the city for various appointments, CSOs connect with offenders in the community to help them maintain compliance with supervision.
In addition to community contacts, CSOs rely on GPS monitoring to maintain accurate location updates on offenders without stable housing. GPS monitoring also allows CSOs to identify patterns in the locations that a mentally ill offender may frequent, which is useful if an offender supervised in the Behavioral Health Unit loses contact with their assigned CSO.
The steps that CSOSA is taking to support the reentry of prisoners with mental illness are part of a broader effort in corrections to decriminalize mental illness. Through ensuring connections to quality mental health care and services, CSOSA’s Behavioral Health Unit helps ensure that mental health needs are met in the regular course of community supervision. The agency is hopeful that this support will thwart criminal activity and enhance public safety. Associate Director Hodges believes that, “[If] we can address mental health and how it leads to criminal activity, then the likelihood of mentally ill offenders committing new crimes can be reduced.”
Social Science Analyst
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