Achieving Successful Interventions in the Justice System

The justice system is failing. Our nation’s correctional population has tripled in the last 25 years. Probation’s failure rate is consistently around 40%. Over 50% of offenders return to jail by the end of the first year, and over 75% return within 5 years. A primary goal of the justice system is to intervene in the life of an offender and modify behavior. With expert advocacy, the justice system can be a powerful intervention tool for both juveniles and adults. This article explains challenges and advocacy strategies for implementing successful interventions in the justice system.

The causes of crime are complex. Every situation is unique. Sentencing laws therefore provide courts with vast discretion in fashioning a response to criminal or delinquent behavior. The justice system is free to punish, rehabilitate or any combination thereof. It can deliver an array of responses to meet the needs of society and the offender. However, flexible sentencing options are not enough to successfully intervene and change behavior.

Barriers To “Justice Interventions”

The juvenile and adult justice systems have become society’s new behavioral health centers. Over 50% of offenders have serious mental health, substance abuse or learning issues. Most clients face severe challenges, and the criminal justice system is overwhelmed and ill-equipped to intervene effectively. There are several reasons why the justice system’s interventions are so unsuccessful:

  • Probation officers have extremely high caseloads making it impossible to properly supervise and support clients.
  • The justice system is punitive and adversarial. Clients can be difficult, resentful, untrusting and in denial. Such an environment is not conducive to creating positive change which requires engagement, understanding and support.
  • Behavior modification requires mild sanctions for noncompliance that are swift and certain. Rewards for positive behavior are even more important than sanctions. The justice system offers severe sanctions that are deferred, and the chances of getting caught are low. The justice system offers no perceived rewards for positive behavior.
  • New correctional dollars are overwhelmingly spent on incarceration as opposed to community-based services that work such as education supports, drug treatment, mental health services, cognitive-behavioral therapy and intensive community supervision.
  • When the justice system tries to address underlying problems, it largely ignores mental health, education, family and employment. As a result, it offers inadequate support services, and then blames the client for failing when a different approach was needed in the first place.

Special Advocacy Strategies

Pennsylvania’s judges understand the need for sentencing alternatives that credibly address underlying needs. While community resources are limited, there are strategies for building a strong treatment team and maximizing access to evidence-based programs that really work to improve learning outcomes or help clients sustain recovery.

With special advocacy, successful interventions are readily achievable. The criminal justice system can collaborate with clients and other systems to become a powerful intervention tool. This requires expertise, coordination and a comprehensive approach that includes the following:

  • Indepth evaluation to determine a client’s individual needs and strengths
  • Client and family engagement
  • A uniquely tailored plan with proper education, recovery and vocational supports
  • A strong treatment team with ongoing communication and assessment
  • Coordination to ensure that all supports, sanctions and incentives are properly administered and modified as circumstances change
  • Navigating the serious barriers and gaps that exist in the criminal, education and behavioral health systems

Community Systems Will Evolve

The goal of an intervention is to offer supports that help people have a happy and meaningful life. Community systems will eventually evolve so there is “no wrong door” for quickly accessing comprehensive ongoing supports. Resources will shift from incarceration to prevention, early intervention, education and recovery supports in our schools and communities. Law enforcement and schools will have new roles that focus on engaging families and community resources utilizing a coordinated case management approach. Interaction with the court system will truly be a last resort.

In the meantime, clients must aggressively utilize specialized advocacy strategies. Only in this way can a criminal justice intervention be successful in overcoming barriers and helping clients become productive members of society.


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