Supervising and Treating Violent Drug Offenders in the Nation’s Capital

By: Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See www.csosa.gov for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

Since the increase in crime during the mid 1960’s, the primary challenge within the criminal justice system has been the substance-abusing offender. Society in general, and the justice system in particular, has revised their thoughts on crime and what we should do about criminals. However, the concern regarding the drug addicted offender remains constant.

We have learned a lot in the last four decades. For instance, we have experienced epidemics of heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and endless other illicit substances along the way. Proposed remedies have ranged from therapeutic communities (sometimes involving whole prison wings devoted to drug treatment) to “tough-love” environments to today’s focus on assessment (placing the offender in the most effective modality) and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Both state and federal governments have tried mandatory incarceration and alternative community-based approaches.

Although the rate of crime in the U.S. has been at record lows for the last ten years, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that populations within the prison and community corrections systems have increased. Most of the increase is driven by substance abusing offenders and changes in sentencing.

In the 1994 report “Controlling Cocaine: Supply vs. Demand Programs,” the Rand Corporation projected that for every dollar spent on drug treatment society reaps seven dollars in benefit (http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/Cocaine-Supply-Demand1994.htm). There are many studies (The Washington State Institute for Public Policy provides a summation) that supply the good news that drug and alcohol treatment works to reduce criminal activity, as well as a range of other positive results (http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/06-06-3901.pdf).

But the bottom line of 40 years of effort is that 80 percent of offenders coming into this country’s correctional institutions have histories of substance abuse, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the vast majority do not receive treatment in prison. These same individuals will enter community supervision, where the lack of treatment will influence whether, and how quickly, they relapse into using drugs and committing crimes.

The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) attempts to deal not just with criminal offenders with histories of drug use, but with individuals that some describe as the most difficult people in the criminal justice system.

CSOSA (http://www.csosa.gov/ and http://media.csosa.gov/ ) is the federal agency that provides parole and probation supervision for D.C. Code offenders in Washington, D.C. CSOSA is responsible for approximately 15,000 offenders each day. Approximately 2,000 offenders return from prison to the nation’s capital each year.

CSOSA has adopted notably stringent contact and drug testing standards. The agency is equally committed to providing the services necessary to assist offenders on supervision. Special supervision units involve high-risk drug offenders, sex and mental health offenders, and those with drinking and driving, or domestic violence issues. The agency also provides educational and vocational assistance. CSOSA has developed an innovative network of partnerships to bring as many resources as possible to the task of community supervision.

The Drug Unit Teams

Two special supervision teams provide interventions for approximately 500 high-risk offenders with extensive criminal and substance abuse histories. They are:

  • Substance Abuse and Intervention Team (SAINT) provides supervision for high-risk parole offenders;
  • Sanctions Team for Addition and Recovery (STAR) supervises probationers using the drug court model.

“The drug units deal with the toughest substance abuse offenders within the CSOSA system,” states DeAndro Baker, Branch Chief for substance abuse, mental health and traffic-alcohol teams for CSOSA. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, Master Addiction Counselor, and certified train the trainer in “What Works” by the National Institute of Corrections.

“We go where few dare to tread,” Baker states. “We know that offenders in the specialized drug units have co-occurring disorders [concurrent mental health and substance abuse diagnoses], are more likely to re-offend, and are at a higher risk to commit anti-social acts. We utilize a range of graduated sanctions to reinforce positive behavior and to swiftly address antisocial attitudes and belief systems. Appropriate sanctions are then followed by proper interventions, including a variety of community-based treatment and programming options. We take public safety and the conditions of release very seriously. The overall effort is to change criminal thinking and behaviors.”

Fifteen Community Supervision Officers (CSO’s–known as parole and probation agents elsewhere) in SAINT and STAR, along with three supervisors, provide a combination of supervision and services. The caseload ratio of 35 offenders per CSO enables close supervision of these high-risk offenders. The normal ratio of supervision in CSOSA is 50 to 1. Lowering caseloads to a level that permits substantial, meaningful contact between the offender and the CSO has been a priority within CSOSA since the agency was established in 1997.

A combination of veteran officers and new CSO’s fresh from the agency’s training academy staff the unit. Mr. Baker indicates that officers “are grounded in clinical evaluation, treatment planning, and establishing and maintaining a continuum of care.” CSO’s provide individual and group counseling. They use a combination of strict accountability and motivational counseling to try to reorient offenders into a new way of thinking and gaining control over their lives. Working with this tough offender population is not only challenging but also critical to public safety. Mr. Baker indicates, “The key to effective supervision is the Community Supervision Officers.”

The Offenders

With the right mix of treatment services and accountability, many offenders go on to lead productive and crime free lives. CSOSA is dedicated to offering the right combination of case management and treatment. The Washington State Public Policy Institute’s 2006 study of adult corrections programs concluded that the combination of supervision and treatment holds one of the more promising approaches to community supervision and reducing recidivism (http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/pub.asp?docid=06-01-1201).

CSOSA has been successful in using special units and partnerships (especially with the faith-based community) to achieve promising results. Close to half our daily population is in a specialized treatment unit or is undergoing intensive supervision, vocational assessments, coordinated treatment activities, and drug testing. The drug units, however, deal with offenders who pose challenges beyond those presented by other offenders.

“In supervision, we provide in-depth case management that includes: screening; assessments; treatment planning; referrals; staffing; counseling and documenting the offenders’ efforts. A performance plan is constructed that provides instructions to assist the offender in making lifestyle changes towards desired pro-social activities,” states Mr. Baker.

To understand the kind of offender and modalities we are talking about, you need to get to the root of the problem-the underlying psychological problems and issues that drive substance abuse and criminality.

According to staff, it’s that “root understanding” that causes some observers to have difficulty in understanding what the units do. “We’re not about business as usual,” Baker states. “We are about restructuring a person who desperately needs help with problem solving, self efficacy, internal accountability, employment readiness, and simple life skills.”

“Working with substance abusers is challenging,” states Cassandra N. Brown, a 15-year veteran in community supervision who has been with CSOSA since its inception. “There are always other issues in the background.”

Brown works with probationers in the drug court. She finds the drug court effective and supportive because of the swift impositions of sanctions and the attention of caring judges. An increasing body of national research on drug courts, such as that cited in the National Institute of Justice report Drug Courts: the Second Decade, points to their efficacy and impact on recidivism (http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/211081.pdf).

The Program

“We tell them that it’s going to be different,” states Ms. Brown. “They don’t believe us, but that’s how the process begins.”

Every offender brings an array of issues. Housing, health care, jobs and substance abuse are just the tip of the iceberg. Significant numbers of offenders, according to Department of Justice research, claim histories of child abuse and neglect  or mental health problems.

While most of us can be compared to a glass that is 70 or 80 percent full, many criminal offenders are people whose glass is perpetually 30 percent full. Addressing the needs of housing and providing job opportunities or drug counseling increases the fullness of the glass. The question that continues to confound criminologists is defining the point at which a combination of supervision and services tips the scales and the offender begins to overcome his or her difficulties. “To overcome those problems, you have to screen, assess, and plan to restructure the person,” states Mr. Baker.

The process begins with comprehensive evaluation of the offender’s background. Within CSOSA, there are teams of specialists who perform evaluations of substance abuse, mental, educational or criminal histories. Offenders in need are placed in specialized programs as appropriate.

According to Mr. Baker, the foundation for effective supervision of these offenders is identifying the crisis points in their lives. The unit does not simply focus on substance abuse but also on the many issues that offenders face. Relapse and problems are expected. A variety of sanctions and interventions are in place to deal with anticipated problems.

“We teach them how to deal with the endless triggers of negative behavior in their lives,” Ms. Brown says. “Through individual and group counseling, we role play these triggers for violence and drugs and teach them that there are better ways to conduct their lives. They need to understand the triggers and how to govern themselves.”

A psychologist, a licensed counselor, supervisors and Mr. Baker run the group counseling sessions and provide individual assistance. They assist with the “heavy duty co-occurring” cases. Community Supervision Officers can also run groups to constantly reinforce the lessons of role-play and “trigger” management.

Modalities used in groups can include cognitive therapy under a variety of guises, including psycho educational classes with names like “Thinking for a Change” or “Reality Therapy.” Strategies are chosen that fit the lifestyle and background of the offender. Baker insists that there is nothing “cookie-cutter” in their approach. “The assessments tell us what the person needs, and we build a case management strategy that evokes change,” he states. “Basically, it all comes down to understanding stages of change, criminological identifiers, anti-social thinking, environmental triggers, pro-social modeling, interventions, structure, and what the offender can do about them.”

Strict supervision is crucial. The units constantly interact with the offender within the office and out in the community. The drug units, drug testing professionals and sanctions teams within CSOSA can come into contact with the offender as many as six times each week. The Drug Court side of the program (for probationers) insures that offenders are before the judge as needed.

It’s the combination of strict supervision and treatment that works to reduce recidivism, according to staff members. “They need the structure. They require the contacts and drug testing. Anything less is setting them up for failure,” according to staff.

Staff insists that they will not hesitate to start the process that may return or place a person in prison. But they are equally adamant that offenders can be taught to successfully deal with the addictions and other challenges their lives.

The Reentry and Sanctions Center–Reductions in Re-arrests are Possible

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67 percent of all those released from prison commit felonies and serious misdemeanors within three years of release. Many commit multiple serious crimes. The lesson of this and other research is that future criminality is probable (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/rpr94.pdf).

CSOSA has a new and important tool to help interrupt the cycle of substance abuse and crime. The agency’s Reentry and Sanctions Center (RSC), which opened in the spring of 2006, is a 100-bed residential facility that provides 28 days of intensive assessment, pre-treatment programming, and case planning for offenders with long histories of drug abuse and crime. The RSC expands the strategies available to CSOSA-and increases the probability that at least some of these offenders will escape the revolving door for good. More information on the RSC is available at (http://www.csosa.gov/) or (http://www.csosa.gov/reentry/rsc_leadership.pdf). The latter provides specifics as to components for the SAINT program.

The SAINT parole team supervises offenders who graduate from the Reentry and Sanctions Center. Prior to the RSC’s opening, CSOSA operated a smaller program, the Assessment and Orientation Center, which was partially funded by the Washington-Baltimore HIDTA. Studies by the University of Maryland’s Institute for Behavior and Health found that offenders who completed the program at the Assessment and Orientation Center were significantly less likely to be arrested after the program.

A 2001 study indicated that all HIDTA program participants (from programs in other locations) experienced a 47 percent decrease in arrest rate. The Reentry and Sanction Center graduates supervised by the drug units experienced a 35 percent decrease. Considering their drug, criminal and social histories, this type of success seems nothing short of remarkable.

“If we can achieve these results with a very difficult population, it’s clear that, given the resources, parole and probation agencies throughout the country can do a better job of supervision,” states Thomas Williams, Associate Director of Community Supervision Services. “We can protect the public and reduce future criminality. Our experience can help.”

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