In these days of ever diminishing resources for public sector behavioral health services for justice-involved persons, there is a strong temptation to oversell jail diversion programs. Unrealistic expectations can set the stage for perceptions of poor performance. This tendency is often fostered by bad research methodology and by overly zealous advocates who are misled by the program reports produced by program staff.
A recent report by the Urban Institute on the Bronx and Brooklyn Mental Health Courts (MHCs) is instructive. Their February, 2012 report, “Criminal Justice Interventions for Offenders with Mental Illness: Evaluations of the Mental Health courts in Bronx and Brooklyn, New York, shows what is realistic to expect.
With a comparison group in each site for the enrollees in the MHCs, they found one year recidivism differences that were consistent with most prior solid research, i.e., consistent, but modest differences. In the Bronx they found a 68% recidivism rate for the MHC enrollees and 75% for the comparison group. In Brooklyn it was 60% and 68%, respectively.
This very well done study points out that jails diversion programs for persons with behavioral health disorders consistently reduce recidivism rates, but not usually extravagantly. Too many programs have staff who are disappointed with their results when, in fact, they should be elated given the challenges their enrollees face.