Women offenders are effected by today's retributive criminal justice policies. Women are currently incarcerated at a rate of 1.5 times that of men. The proportion of women prisoners increased from 4% to 9% since 1988. Little is known about the effectiveness of treatment for women offenders, partly because treatment is widely based on men's needs, despite research indicating that women have more mental heath needs.
Services are also lacking for juvenile offenders. Youth are more likely to be incarcerated at placements away from home despite evidence indicating that community-based interventions are more effective at reducing mental health problems and delinquent behavior. For juveniles residing in large facilities, appropriate mental health assessments and individualized treatment plans are often lacking, particularly for youth with co-occurring disorders.
These challenges are true for criminal and juvenile justice systems across many states. The first study provides an illustration from Texas. Following widespread reports of several sexual abuse scandals at the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), a Blue Ribbon Task Force was created to redesign juvenile justice in the state of Texas in general, and TYC services in particular. The task force developed a report with over 60 evidence-supported recommendations across the following three domains: before, during, and after incarceration. These recommendations, using evidence to guide criminal justice practice and policies, serve as the organizing framework for the symposium and impetus for the empirically based outcome studies included.
Three of the most compelling recommendations of the task force are particularly relevant to youth and women offenders – two of the most vulnerable incarcerated groups. The first of these is the need for evidence-based mental health screening and assessments. The second study addresses this need by exploring whether mental health symptoms are significant mediators in the juvenile maltreatment-delinquency relationship. The second pertinent recommendation is that treatment should be individualized and meet the offenders' specific needs. The third study will address the importance of treatment matching, by presenting the development of a severity-based gradient for symptom and substance use for incarcerated youth with co-occurring disorders. The final study will present a meta-analysis assessing the association between correctional-based treatment for women inmates and reduction in mental health symptoms and recidivism, highlighting the importance of evidence-based and gender-specific interventions.
In order to provide effective services to vulnerable incarcerated populations, it is imperative that social workers be provided with information regarding evidence-based mental health screening, assessments and interventions, specifically those that best meet offenders' individual needs. Well informed assessment and interventions strategies for juvenile and female offenders may offer protective advantages against ecological risk, reduce recidivism, and improve long-term outcomes for individuals and communities.