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The Impact of Severe Mental Illness on Parole Decisions: Social Integration within a Prison Setting

by Jason Matejkowski, Joel M. Kaplan, & Sara Wiesel Cullen (2010).  Criminal Justice and Behavior, 37(9): 1005-1029.

Seriously mentally ill offenders do not often fare well in parole release decisions. In this study, researchers from Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania examine New Jersey corrections and parole case file data on 11,181 New Jersey prisoners who received parole release decisions in 2007.  In New Jersey, trained mental health clinicians complete mental health parole evaluations of all prisoners within three months of their parole release hearings. For 2007, approximately eight percent of parole-eligible inmates meet established criteria for serious mental illness, with bipolar disorder being the most frequent diagnosis, and mood disorders being more common than psychotic disorders. For all of these prisoners, information was gathered on health and mental health conditions, length of incarceration, level of program participation, work history, disciplinary infractions, and social and community networks; information was also gathered on criminal and current offense history, risk assessment (LSI-R) information, and various demographic data.

Key demographic findings include:

  • SMI prisoners were slightly older and more likely female and white;
  • SMI prisoners were more likely incarcerated for victim-involved, violent crimes;
  • SMI prisoners had slightly higher risk scores (related to past and present psychiatric problems and mental health treatment); and
  • SMI prisoners had higher levels of substance abuse-related social and medical assistance.

 Other key findings include:

  • SMI and non-SMI prisoners had equal levels of community and family support upon reentry, although these levels were low for each group of offenders;
  • SMI and non-SMI prisoners had similar levels of program participation, and each group had low levels of program completion;
  • SMI prisoners had slightly higher levels of institutional misconduct; and
  • SMI and non-SMI prisoners had similar levels of work position (job) turnover.

Key release-related findings include the fact that SMI prisoners were not granted parole at lower levels than non-SMI prisoners, and that parole release was not predicted by the presence of SMI, race, program participation, severity of current offense, or risk assessment scores. Overall, the authors state, the findings of this study "suggest that inmates with mental illness may not be discriminated against in parole release decisions as much as prior studies have suggested. Moreover, inmates with mental illness appear to exhibit only a slightly heightened risk for criminal behavior. Although inmates with mental illness also appeared to be able to access prison programming at rates similar to those of non-mentally ill inmates, these rates were universally low. Improving access to needed therapeutic, educational, and vocational programs could go a long way in addressing criminogenic needs among inmates both with and without mental illness."

 For further information, contact Jason Matejkowski, School of Social Policy and Practice, University of Pennsylvania, 3815 Walnut Street, Philadelphia 19104-6179, (email)  

Posted Mon, Jun 20 2011 10:51 AM by Tracey Vessels


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