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Dangerous/Endangered Women: a Proposal to Reduce Recidivism

The thousands of offenders released each year from Colorado prisons cannot be treated as an homogeneous group nor assisted in a standardized manner. There are some offenders who need this kind of programs more: The mentally ill offender, the serious and violent offender, and the female offender.
Rogelio Garcia-Contreras

Issue #71, December 2004

The Center, the System and the Plan

handcuffsAside from the traditional major barriers faced by the average released offender — finding and maintaining employment, and the reestablishment of family relationships — four years of experience working with these population have taught me one thing: the thousands of offenders released each year from Colorado prisons cannot be treated as an homogeneous group nor assisted in a standardized manner. There are some offenders who need this kind of programs more: The mentally ill offender, the serious and violent offender, and the female offender.

Each year 6,300 Colorado offenders are released from correctional facilities. 52% of these are released to six counties in the State of Colorado: Denver, Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas and El Paso. Of the 3,300 released to these areas, close to 1,000 are considered serious and violent offenders, more likely to recidivate. Serious and violent offenders are not an homogeneous group and require a highly specialized treatment.

One other group which is, in some cases a subset of the serious and violent offender population is a group of approximately 280 Offenders with Serious Mental Illnesses or OSMI. While the OSMI population appears to face the same barriers that other serious and violent offenders, they require more intensive case management and a comprehensive treatment approach due to the level of aggression identified within this group.

Finally, the female offender is another offender group that faces high recidivism risk and several barriers to transition. Research demonstrates what our experience indicates: female offenders, who constitute up to 20% of the John Inman Work and Family Center (JIWFC) total caseload, have core issues that are specific to their gender; issues that effect their ability to become pro-social once released from prison. Thus, without effective intervention, the female offender has a higher risk to adopt or return to those negative behaviors that cause recidivism.

In conclusion, while some transitional services are available to help these offenders successfully reintegrate into the community, significant service gaps do exist. These individuals frequently have low education levels, deficit in employment skills, need stable housing, and lack a supportive network of family and friends. Additionally there appears to be a preponderance of medical problems, especially among the female and mentally ill groups (hepatitis C, HIV, closed head injuries, diminished intellectual capacity, diabetes, and cancer, just to mention a few).

Faced with multiple needs, a complex system, inadequate service availability, and minimal case management assistant, almost half of all mentally ill, serious and violent, and female offenders recidivate within one year of their release. Thus, a truly specialized approach that concentrates its efforts on the particular needs of these groups of offenders, as well as the development of an institutionalized mechanism that starts in the facility and provides intensive and continuous case management services at all instances of the transitional process, will significantly reduce current recidivism patterns in these groups of offenders.

In fact, the JIWFC already constitutes an actual possibility for the development and implementation of a three-phases plan to attend the needs of those offenders with higher risks of recidivism. As I said, the plan would consist of three phases:

  • In-facility diagnostic and identification of the mentally ill offender, serious and violent offender, and female offender with serious reintegration challenges; assessment, intensive programming and 'step down' into the community
  • Development of a reintegration plan, connecting the offender with community resources. Helping hard-to-serve offenders design a life plan.
  • Community-based and family-based efforts. Promote a general commitment to helping the offender reintegrate as a full member of society.

The Obstacles

Due to the lack of genuine political and financial support from the Colorado Departmnt of Corrections (CDOC), data quality has been certainly the biggest challenge faced by the JIWFC; data errors have a distinctly negative impact on outcome research. Inaccuracies in enrollment data, intake information, needs, service provision and outcome information, for instance, have made it impossible to factor intensity and duration of services — the most consistent predictors of outcomes, in any analysis. In order to solve this problem a quality control mechanism must be established. Verification of numbers served, services provided and outcomes should be gathered from this database quality control system. Employment and wage rates should be measured through Department of Labor and Employment information systems.

Recidivism rates should be measured by interfacing the community reintegration (CR) database with the DOC Information System. And measurement of other specific goals/objectives must be accomplished by applying simple efficiency measures (accomplished/not accomplished) to the listed standards of each goal and/or objective. DOC offenders may receive different levels of CR services at various facilities as they move throughout the system. To conduct appropriate analyses on the impact of services provided at the Work and Family Center (WFC), independent observations are required, meaning that each offender could be included in the study only once.

The few baseline variables gathered in previous CR studies revealed important differences between groups and yet, there are certainly many other differences between and within groups that remain unmeasured. Thus, funding to conduct independent group studies is necessary, specially for those offenders or groups of offenders with the most significant barriers to transition and at the highest risks of recidivism: the mentally ill, the serious and violent, and the female offender. A thorough and more detailed evaluation would verify electronic data with hard files and collect extensive client variables in a prospective design. It is imperative then that an outcome evaluation focusing on annual recidivism rates uses a control group that varies from the treatment group only in the delivery of specialized services being evaluated.

Another important limitation of previous CR studies has been the use of only one outcome variable. Multiple outcome measures are recommended for any research study. Variables other than recidivism or return to prison require significant resources to gather. It is expected that the CR program may have a greater impact on other outcomes as well, such as an increase in the employment rates for hard-to-serve offenders, the reestablishment of family ties, changes in behavioral patterns, and a reduction in crime tendencies. Outcome variables should be selected to match the goals of specific programs.

For example, JIWFC Case Managers specialized in female offenders can help reduce women offender tendency to commit crimes in order to obtain drugs. By identifying those with the highest recidivism risks, and by developing a specialized service delivery to those with the most significant barriers to transition, it is probable that the design of the JIWFC services and assessments are not limited exclusively to reduce offenders' recidivism rates.

Something similar can be said about the mentally ill and violent offenders. By adding two significant factors to the existing Serious and Violent Offender Re-Entry Initiative criteria, the JIWFC will be able to enhance a systematic identification system using the Standardized Offender Assessment. Thus, the JIWFC transition Re-entry Plan for mentally ill offenders could include professional therapy for the participants, along with a retroactive analysis of their criminal history.

Finally, it is generally not recommended to conduct outcome evaluations on such a new program, especially one that is operating from an original model. This program has inarguably undergone many developmental stages, which makes it difficult to assess analytical or programmatic impact on offenders. Even more remarkable is operating a new program in the absence of a regulatory or external auditing agency to guide program practices, as there is with substance abuse or mental health treatment programs — potential JIWFC partners under the plan to focus on hard-to-serve, mentally ill, and violent offenders.

How Will the Results be Analyzed?

Since the JIWFC is part of CR and works in conjunction with other DOC programs and services, such as parole, community corrections, employment services, substance abuse treatment, and mental health services, it becomes very difficult to separate out the direct impact that the Center has on offenders. Limited research funding and short timeframes have inhibited adequate outcome evaluation in previous CR studies.

The CDOC CR Program Manager and the Advisory Management/Review Committee on the JIWFC should analyze program progress and performance on a quarterly basis in terms of specific goals and objectives. Analysis should be done both in terms of progress toward stated goals as well as with a focus on continuous quality improvement of JIWFC processes, procedures and staff capabilities. Periodic review of offender case management files should be used to analyze the effectiveness of services provided. The relationship between offender needs, services and intensity of services provided should be analyzed by comparisons between these factors, recidivism rates, and specific challenges posted by the segmentation of programs offered at the Center — mentally ill offenders, female offenders, and serious and violent offenders. And finally, levels of customer satisfaction should be measured as well through periodic customer service surveys and follow-up contacts with offender employers.

The JIWFC Model

The JIWFC has strengthened the offender service network in Denver Metro Area, by increasing collaboration with various state, local and community based organizations and/or focus groups addressing multiple issues, and by developing an employer advisory council that includes over 200 employers on the active database used to refer offenders for job interviews and placements. In fact, the coordination with community based organizations and faith-based groups provide increased access by offenders to employment assistance, educational and vocational programs and valuable support services.

Today, the program services offered at the JIWFC include the 'going home', Serious and Violent Offenders Re-entry Initiative, the Motherhood Initiative, and the Offenders with Serious Mental Illness Project. The Offenders with Serious Mental Illness (OSMI) Program is an attempt to build an organized and systematic plan for the successful reintegration to the community of the mentally ill offender. The Serious and Violent Offender Re-entry Initiative (SVORI) provides assistance to offenders with serious mental and substance abuse issues, sex offenders and general population of serious and violent offenders. Finally, the Motherhood Initiative Program (MIP) tries to empower female offenders by building esteem and self-sufficiency from the inside out. Project participants are identified while in Prison, at Denver Women's Correctional Facility. Mainly funded by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDOLE), and the CDOC, the Program is designed to provide gender specific services to female offenders in the Colorado Correctional system.

Thus, although significant progress has been made in the areas of operational processes, offender service-delivery procedures and staff coordination, the JIWFC should contribute to the development of an intensive reintegration program, and improve the relationships with other DOC programs and community-based organizations, such as parole, community corrections, employment services, substance abuse treatment, family and/or mental health services.

The model of service provision and client flow developed a couple of years ago must be improved through the implementation of a new holistic and comprehensive strategy. Streamlined referrals from correctional sources (DOC facilities, Parole, Community Corrections) must be strengthened and complemented by a truly specialized approach so the Center can concentrate its basic efforts on the particular needs of the mentally ill, violent and female offenders. Likewise, the development of an institutionalized mechanism that starts in the facility and provides intensive and continuous case management services at all instances of the transitional process will become indispensable to reduce current recidivism patterns in these groups of offenders, and will allow the Center to focus on other outcome variables, such as an increase in the employment rates for hard-to-serve offenders, the reestablishment of family ties, changes in behavioral patterns, and a reduction in crime tendencies.

In conclusion, although important efforts have been made with several state and local agencies to provide specialized services to specific segments of the entire released offender population, the JIWFC revised strategy is to deliver specialized services, contribute to the development of an intensive reintegration program, assist and work with the offender since the offender is in the facility, and improve professional relations with other CDOC programs and community-based organizations. All this in order to have a deeper impact among those offenders who need us the most and who, due to the economic or structural limitations of existing programs, cannot access in a systematic manner to the Center's services. Thus, it is essential the political and financial support of State authorities for the consolidation of a solid and most needed Reintegration Program in our community… The healthy reintegration of offenders to their families and to society should be a priority of all. Some agencies do serve the common good and should be supported and recognized for it.


General Statistics

Source: Colorado Department of Corrections, 2003 General Statistics

Adult Inmate Population (as of December 31, 2003): 19,454
Community/ISP Inmate (as of December 31, 2003): 1,860
Average Daily Population for Fiscal Year 2003: 18,636

Adult Inmate Population in terms of Gender, (as of June 30, 2002):
Male 91.7%
Female 8.3%

DCJ Prison Population Projections:
December 03 — 19,386 offenders
December 04 — 20,542 offenders
December 05 — 21,746 offenders
December 06 — 22,774 offenders

Court Commitments (Fiscal Year 2002):
Males: 5.1 years
Females: 4.1 years

Percentage of Offenders between 20 and 29 years of age:
Males: 34.1%
Females: 29.1%

Percentage of Offenders between 30 and 39 years of age:
Males: 32.4%
Females: 39.0%

Percentage of Offenders between 40 and 49 years of age:
Males: 23.3%
Females: 24.9%

Ethnicity (as of June 30, 2002):
White 45.8%
Hispanic 28.7%
African American 22.4%
Native American 2.2%
Asian American 0.9%

New Convictions (as of September 30, 2003): 14,619
Returned to Prison for a Technical Parole Violation: 2,627
Parole Return/New Crime: 1,562
Parole Caseload (as of December 31, 2003): 6,559
Admissions for Fiscal Year 2001-2002: 7,802
Releases for Fiscal Year 2001-2002: 6,554

Most Serious Offenses:
Sexual Assault

Prison Population and Incarceration Cost, (Source - Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition):

  • From FY 1980 to FY 2004, the operating budget for the CDOC increased over 1,500%.
  • From 1980 to 2003, the population of the State of Colorado increased by 59%
  • From 1980 to 2003, the prison population in the State of Colorado increased by 528%
  • During FY 2002, Colorado taxpayers paid an average of $28,218 (or $77.31 per day) for EACH prisoner housed in the Department of Corrections.

Figures on Race and Ethnicity (Source — Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition):

  • Latino/a citizens account for 17.1% of the population in Colorado in Colorado, but make up 28.7% of the prison population
  • African-Americans make up 3.7% of Colorado's population, but represent 22.4% of the State's prison population.
  • Anglos are 82.7% of the State's population, but only 45.8% of the prison population
  • 30% of convicted whites were sent to prison, whereas 48% of convicted black defendants received prison sentences
  • According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a male born in 2001 faces the following odds of going to prison during his lifetime:
    1 in 3 for African Americans
    1 in 6 for Latinos
    1 in 17 for Caucasians

Drug-related Crimes (Source-Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition):

  • Over the past decade, the number of people sent to prison in Colorado for a drug offense has increased 476%, making drug offenders the fastest growing and largest category of felons in prison.
  • As of June 30, 2002, there were 3,691 people in prison for a drug offense. 50% of them were convicted of simple possession.
  • Colorado has the fifth highest rate of drug dependence and abuse in the U.S.
  • Colorado also has the sixth worst treatment gap
  • A 2001 study by the National Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse found that Colorado has the lowest per capita spending on substance abuse prevention, treatment, and research out of the 46 reporting states.
  • According to the CDOC, 82% of women and 82.4% of men in prison are in need of substance abuse treatment.
  • 69% of people in Colorado prisons for drug possession or use, are people of color.

Parole Practices (Source — Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition):

  • In 2002, of the 7,802 total admissions to prison, 28% were admissions for technical violations on parole, this means that a procedural violation occurred, but no new crime was committed.
  • In 2002, half (51.6% of people in prison were past their parole eligibility date. In 1997, only 39.2% of people in prison were past their parole eligibility date.

Women Offenders (Source — Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition):

  • Colorado's female incarceration rate has grown faster than the male incarceration rate
  • 86% of women sent to Colorado's prisons in 2002 were convicted of a non-violent offense.
  • The five most frequent crimes for which women were sent to prison in 2001 were:
    Drugs 35%
    Theft 12%
    Attempt/conspiracy/accessory to a non-violent crime 12%
    Escape/contraband 10%
    Forgery 7%
  • In Colorado, the rate of imprisonment for black women is more than twelve times the rate for white women.
  • The rate for Latina women is nearly twice times that of white women
  • 65% of women prisoners are mothers of children under 18 years old
  • Children with an incarcerated mother are 5 to 6 times more likely to become incarcerated than other children who live in poverty, but whose mothers have never been in prison.
  • 51% of girls and 24% of boys in juvenile detention in Colorado had a mother who had been or was currently incarcerated.
  • In 2002, 42% of female inmates had a diagnosis of serious mental illness (compared to 13.9% of male prisoners).

Mentally Ill Offenders (Source — Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition):

  • 16% of Inmates in the Colorado Department of Corrections prison system had a serious mental illness. Five times more than the rate of mental illness reported in 1991.
  • By 2008, one out of every five prisoners in Colorado will suffer from a serious mental illness.
  • In 1995, the CDOC built the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo to provide psychiatric and psychological services for prisoners with serious mental illnesses. Since San Carlos combines intensive psychiatric care with the security functions of a prison, it has the highest operating cost at $186.10 per inmate per day, or $67,927 per year.
  • Today, the DOC budget is one and three quarters that of mental health.
  • During the last decade, DOC has increased its number of employees by 175% while the number of mental health employees have fallen by 32%.

Rogelio Garcia Contreras, Ph.D. serves as an instructor on issues of globalization and race, class and gender at Colorado University in Boulder and Metro State in Denver, and served as a community reintegration specialist at the John Inmann Work and Family center in Denver that serves 1500 clients yearly to help folks survive after incarceration.

Copyright © 2004 by Rogelio Garcia-Contreras. Handcuffs from Bad archives. All rights reserved.