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SAMHSA News - May/June 2008, Volume 16, Number 3

Helping Young Offenders Return to Communities (Part 1)

By Rebecca A. Clay

“For many young offenders, moving up from the juvenile justice system to the full-fledged prison system is a rite of passage,” explained Christine Urban, L.M.H.C., C.A.S.A.C.

“These kids are often second- or third-generation offenders; their fathers and grandfathers spent time in prison,” she continued. “They don’t know any different.” Ms. Urban is Vice President of Programs and Services at Huther-Doyle Memorial Institute, Inc., in Rochester, NY.

Teaching young offenders something different is the aim of the program Ms. Urban and her colleagues run with support from SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT). The New York institute is 1 of 23 grantees around the country that are part of the Young Offender Reentry Program (YORP), launched by CSAT in 2004 and 2005.

The program allows grantees to expand or enhance substance abuse treatment and other services for juvenile and young adult offenders who are returning to the community following incarceration in juvenile detention centers, jail, or prison. The goal is to treat substance abuse and reduce the chances that these youth will commit more crimes.

“If you can intervene when offenders are still young,” said CSAT Director H. Westley Clark, M.D., J.D., M.P.H., “you can break the cycle.”

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A Growing Problem

Approximately 100,000 youth leave secure residential facilities and return home to their communities each year, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

For many of these young offenders, freedom is short-lived. According to OJJDP, 63 percent of them will commit an offense again before they’ve even passed the 1-year mark.

Substance abuse plays a big role in that recidivism.

“There’s a real strong correlation between drugs and crime, one that has been established in study after study for about 40 years now,” said Kenneth W. Robertson, Team Leader of the Criminal Justice Grant Programs in CSAT’s Division of Services Improvement. “About 60 to 70 percent of youth who are involved in criminal activity are also involved in substance abuse.”

Yet only 1 in 10 young offenders have access to substance abuse treatment, he noted.

Even if young people can get treatment while incarcerated, it doesn’t do much good if that treatment stops the moment they walk out their door. “Research shows that no matter how effective substance treatment is in the correctional system, the effects are very quickly lost if it’s not followed up with treatment in the community,” said Public Health Adviser George Samayoa, M.D., C.A.S., Dr.D.F.C., of CSAT’s Division of Services Improvement.

That kind of followup is just what SAMHSA’s Young Offender Reentry Program is designed to do. “We want a seamless continuum of care, not young people receiving treatment in prison and then being released into the community and needing to find their own way to be screened, assessed, and placed into treatment,” said Dr. Samayoa.

The work begins even before the young offenders are released and continues for months after they’ve returned home. In addition to arranging substance abuse treatment, the grantees make sure the youth have the skills they need to succeed in life—everything from how to write a resume to how to be good parents in the future.

The program even provides things as basic as something to eat or a place to stay for those who need it.

“These young people go out into a world they may not have seen for 3, 4, even 5 years,” said Dr. Clark. “When they come out, they’re lost.”

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Having an Impact

Thanks to the program, however, these young offenders are now finding their way.

Nationwide, grantees have followup data on 721 of the young people they have served. These young offenders have made progress in several key areas.

  • Abstinence. The percentage of clients who reported that they hadn’t used alcohol or illegal drugs within the last month dropped 12 percent between intake and a 6-month followup. At intake, 76 percent of clients were using alcohol or illegal drugs; 6 months later, 67 percent were.

  • Employment and education. The percentage of clients reporting that they were currently employed or in school increased 2 percent, going from 57 percent at intake to 59 percent at the 6-month followup.

  • Stable housing. The percentage of clients reporting that they had a permanent place to live jumped dramatically, increasing by 103 percent. At intake, only 20 percent of clients had stable housing; 6 months later, that percentage had increased to 41 percent.

The percentage of clients who reported feeling socially connected to their communities—interacting with family and friends, participating in self-help groups, attending religious services, and the like—stayed steady. At both intake and followup, the percentage reporting social connectedness was 80 percent.

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Gang Activity May Skew Data

Regional variations may skew the YORP data on recidivism, said Dr. Samayoa. “During the period the data were collected, there was a big increase in gang activity in the Southwest,” he explained. “Many of the clients are gang members, and the peer pressure is very high. Some of these kids are forced to participate in criminal activities with the gangs or suffer the consequences.”

With those numbers in mind, said Dr. Samayoa, the program’s overall outcomes show less than positive impact on recidivism. In fact, the percentage of clients reporting that they had not been arrested in the last month actually decreased slightly. At intake, 92 percent had no past-month arrests; 6 months later, that number had dropped to 87 percent.

In other parts of the country, especially the East Coast, the data are much more promising.

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