Bridging the Gap: Using Forensic Psychology to Reduce Recidivism

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Bridging the Gap: Using Forensic Psychology to Reduce Recidivism

By The Fix staff 07/19/17

Many people struggle to accept that criminal behavior can be the result of untreated mental illness.

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A man in shadow holding onto a chain link fence.

Just like there is a cycle of addiction there is a cycle of incarceration, and the two are often intertwined, complicated by issues of mental illness and lack of access to treatment. Forensic psychology, a burgeoning field, aims to bridge the medical and criminal justice fields, which often feel at odds with each other, in order to better understand and address the root causes of crime and reduce the likelihood of future offenses.

“There’s a level of empathy that comes when you introduce someone who has the psychological background that you wouldn’t have with just a judge or lawyer,” says Danielle LaPointe, the executive director of Sunspire Health Hilton Head, a treatment center focusing on people with co-occurring disorders in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “When you put it in the hands of a professional that understands that this is an illness, it can be very helpful in aiding a person.”

Forensic psychologists can fill a variety of roles, from evaluating someone’s fitness as a parent to discussing the psychological reasons behind a murder.

“It is so important to focus on the fact that it is a disease and to treat it as such,” says Rachael Bell, a licensed professional counselor at Hilton Head who has also worked in the criminal justice system. “Legal ramifications come from the disease.”

Bell acknowledges that this viewpoint is controversial and many people struggle to accept that criminal behavior can be the result of untreated mental illness. However, professionals in the field of forensic psychology say treating the underlying mental health issues that contribute to criminal behavior is critical to keeping people out of jail.

“It’s easier to convince the legal system to get someone treatment and care because it’s going to reduce recidivism, save tax dollars and increase public safety,” she says. At the same time, many forensic psychologists are passionate about helping individuals work through their mental illness that contributes to dysfunctional behavior. Forensic psychology addresses the public benefits and the individuals’ needs.

“When you merge those two together the results are spectacular,” LaPointe says.

Over the past decade, the results have garnered attention as data emerged supporting the claim that long-term psychological treatment can help keep people out of jail.

“Mental health folks have shown empirical data that shows this works, that it accomplishes fiscal and financial goals, but also helps the individuals,” LaPointe says.

Forensic psychologists do not shy away from the fact that people with untreated mental illness and addiction are more likely than the general population to commit crimes.

“Criminal activity is normalized in that environment,” says Bell. “A lot of these behaviors are related to the disease.” Because there is a hereditary aspect to both addiction and criminal behavior, there becomes a “generational genetic and social pattern,” Bell says.

It’s one step to identify the underlying risk factors for crime but another to treat those so that a person is less likely to commit a crime in the future. In order for that to happen, a forensic psychologist must motivate the clients to want to make changes. The external motivation of court-ordered treatment must be internalized.

“When someone comes through the court system, they don’t want treatment, [they] just want to get out of trouble,” LaPointe says. “It takes a really skilled therapist to turn externalized motivator onto the inside and help the client find things that they want to do with their life. It’s really a beautiful process.”

That genuine change is what decreases the likelihood that a patient will commit a crime in the future.

“Patients have to consistently utilize the skills so that recidivism is reduced,” Bell says.

At the same time, it’s important that people feel the natural consequences of their actions, LaPointe and Bell say.

“When there is criminal behavior involved, the legal system can be the thing that saves somebody’s life,” LaPointe says. Families need to resist the urge to always pay bail and insulate people from the consequences of their actions. “If parents pay bail over and over and over again, that child is more likely to die from this disease than if mom had let the judicial system do its job.”

Bringing the fields of psychiatry and criminal justice together can save lives, LaPointe says.

“It’s not the judicial system alone, but the judicial system along with counseling,” she says. “It is so imperative to save that life. This is serious. Individuals with criminal backgrounds are at much higher risk for death. With this population it’s do or die.”

That is part of the reason that the field of forensic psychology is becoming more widely accepted. Programs like diversion, court-ordered treatment and drug-courts are all examples of how the mainstream criminal justice system has embraced this treatment-focused approach.

“There is always a chance for change, and people are realizing that through treatment offenders can modify how they think and behave,” Bell says.

Those changes are happening on both sides of the law.

“We’re seeing it in the field that there is more and more demand,” Bell says. “We’re starting to embrace counseling in the place of bars and a cell. There’s a paradigm shift that is long needed and much welcome.”

That said, the field of forensic psychology is just becoming mainstream, and much more work is needed in this area.

“There is hope and promise and we’ve come a long way,” LaPointe says. “But we’re not where we need to be.”

Sunspire Health is a network of boutique addiction treatment programs. Learn more at www.sunspirehealth.com.

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