Substance Use, Criminal Activity, and Mental Health among Violent and Nonviolent Rural Probationers

By Webster, J. Matthew; Dickson, Megan F. et al. | Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Substance Use, Criminal Activity, and Mental Health among Violent and Nonviolent Rural Probationers


Webster, J. Matthew, Dickson, Megan F., Saman, Daniel M., Mateyoke-Scrivner, Allison, Oser, Carrie B., Leukefeld, Carl, Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling


Differences between violent and nonviolent probationers were examined in the growing, yet understudied, rural probation population. Violent rural probationers had higher rates of substance use, criminal activity, and mental health symptoms than did nonviolent rural probationers. Implications for practitioners are discussed.

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Probation as a form of prison diversion has become increasingly more prevalent, in part, because it is significantly less costly than incarceration and because prisons have become overcrowded. Since 1995, the U.S. probation population has experienced an increase of approximately 30%, and in 2003, the number of adults on probation grew to more than 4 million (Glaze & Bonczar, 2007). Glaze and Bonczar (2007) also reported that since 2003, more than 2 million adults were given probation supervision per year.

Overall, 37 states experienced an increase in their adult probation population in 2006. Many of the states with large increases have been rural states. For example, of the 4 states with the greatest percentage increase in probation population between January 1, 2006, and December 31, 2006, 3 are generally classified as rural states (Alabama, +14.7%; Kentucky and Idaho, +11.2%). National statistics also show that of those individuals on probation in 2006, 3% were on probation for sexual assaults, 4% for domestic violence, and 9% for other assault (16% total; Glaze & Bonczar, 2007).

One concern with an increasing number of violent probationers in the community is the negative set of characteristics that have been found to be associated with violent offender populations in general. Correlations have been found between violent behavior and substance use (Haggard-Grann, Hallqvist, Langstr6m, & M611er, 2006), criminal activity (Piquero, 2000), and mental health problems (Friedman, 2006; Shaw et al., 2006).

Regarding substance use, almost two thirds of probationers reported past substance use, whereas roughly half were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of their offense (Mumola, 1998). Findings have also indicated that criminal activity was more likely to be committed during episodes while individuals are actively addicted to drugs rather than during periods of reduced use or abstinence (Gossop, Marsden, Stewart, & Rolfe, 2000). Furthermore, the percentage of crime victims who reported that their offender was under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of the offense has been found to be higher in rural areas (35%) compared with urban areas (29%; Duhart, 2000). The exact connection between substance use and violence is not yet fully understood; however, there is an increasing prevalence of violence associated with substance use (De Li, Prig & MacKenzie, 2000).

In addition to the high rates Of substance use among probationers, research has demonstrated that violent offenders seem to commit more crimes than do nonviolent offenders (Piquero, 2000). Early research documented chronic offenders (Wolfgang, Figlio, & Sellin, 1972) who were fewer in number but responsible for a majority of the crime, including the more violent and serious offenses. More recent studies have further indicated the connection between violence and offending, providing evidence that violent offenders commit crimes more frequently and begin offending at earlier ages than do nonviolent offenders (Piquero, 2000).

Bearing in mind the high rates of substance use and criminal activity among probationers, it is also important to note that up to one half million of those on probation have mental health problems (Ditton, 1999). When compared with nonviolent offenders, violent offenders have more psychological problems, including a higher level of hostility (Mills, Kroner, & Hemmati, 2003). Furthermore, the strongest association between mental health and crime is found for violent crime (Taylor, 2004) such that probationers with mental disorders are more likely than other probationers to have committed a violent offense (28. …

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