Local data indicates that approximately 40% of female inmates in New York City jails have a mental illness. In 2013, while 12% of all Criminal Court cases with a sentence imposed at arraignment involved women, 23% of cases with 10 or more prior misdemeanor convictions involved women. This high rate of mental illness and frequency of previous convictions indicate the need for effective interventions targeting women at an early stage of criminal involvement. In addition to being more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness, justice-involved women have higher rates of substance abuse1 and of major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder specifically consistent with long-term physical and/or sexual abuse.2 Risk factors associated with recidivism that are specific to women include children, relationships, abuse, trauma, and personal safety.3 However, because the justice-involved population remains overwhelmingly male, women who do become court-involved and/or incarcerated typically cannot access the gender-specific services they need.
The Women’s Diversion Approach
CASES provides Women’s Diversion Services (WDS) as part of the Community Case Management (CCM) program track of Manhattan START. WDS provides a 3-5 day alternative to incarceration that features a range of gender-responsive services designed to address the effects of past trauma and reduce behaviors associated with criminal activity. These services include:
- Supportive Counseling: Services include trauma-informed care, Seeking Safety (a best practice for justice-involved women), and cognitive behavioral therapy, with sessions that address asking for help, setting boundaries in relationships, engaging others in supporting one’s recovery, self-care, and coping with triggers associated with negative behaviors, including substance abuse.
- Psychiatric Services: For WDS participants suffering from serious behavioral health problems, CASES provides psychiatric services as needed.
- Mentoring Services: A peer specialist—a woman who has successfully navigated her own criminal justice history and completed peer advocacy training—provides concrete support to help clients develop skills to approach everyday activities such as navigating public agencies, applying for entitlements, asking for help, and accessing community resources.
- Referrals: Program staff provide referrals to address immediate subsistence and/or housing needs and, tailored to each individual woman’s needs and goals, to job training, adult education, medical care, leisure and recreation services, mental health treatment, drug treatment, bereavement services, legal assistance, domestic violence services, and/or child welfare preventive services.
Throughout every phase of the program—from in-court assessment to completion—WDS staff deliver services guided by motivational interviewing and trauma-informed care, both evidence-based approaches that help participants to overcome ambivalence to engaging in services and to address high rates of past and ongoing trauma.
In FY 2015, WDS diverted 171 women from jail. While 94% of these women were assessed at WDS intake as at a high or very high risk for recidivism, 77% successfully completed WDS, thus fulfilling their court obligations and avoiding incarceration. Of those who completed the WDS court mandate, 50% chose to continue in voluntary case management services lasting up to four months. WDS participants who chose to engage in these services experienced a 45% reduction in recidivism (based on comparing periods pre- and post-WDS participation).