Diversion of Nonviolent Substance Abuse Parolees: Putting Research into Practice

Article excerpt

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. …