Paroling authorities play a critical role within correctional systems across the nation. They make thousands of decisions a year about the timing of release from prison for a significant number of offenders each year, set conditions of release and respond to violations of post-release supervision for many thousands more, and serve as important partners in contributing to public safety and the wise use of resources.

A significant proportion of the population seen by state paroling authorities in the course of making parole decisions has mental illness, abuses substances, or—in many cases—suffers from both.  In a recent publication summarizing available data on these populations and offering a strategy for responding to them, the Council of State Governments Justice Center (Justice Center) reported that 16% of inmates in state prisons had a serious mental illness, and that 53 % has substance (alcohol and other drugs) use disorders.  Further, it estimated that, of those with serious mental illnesses diagnosed—fully 59% also had co-occurring (SAMSHA's Co-Occurring Center for Excellence, 2007) 1 substance use (abuse or dependence) disorders (Osher et al., 2012).  As recently as 2011, those percentages translate—as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (Cardon and Sabol,2011)—to a population of over 221,000 individuals with serious mental illnesses and a population of more than 732,000 individuals with substance abuse disorders in state prisons. 

This population with behavioral health disorders (mental illness, substance use disorders, or both) (Osher et al., 2012) raises questions and challenges for parole decisionmakers, particularly given the significant numbers of these offenders that paroling authorities regularly encounter.  Clearly, as paroling authority members consider such individuals for parole release, set conditions of parole, and respond to violations, behavioral health factors (mental illness and substance use disorders) need to be taken into consideration—in order to anticipate and reduce any challenges for public safety, to contribute to the most effective use of limited treatment resources, and to contribute, to the degree possible, to the appropriate treatment and recovery of these individuals. 

The National Parole Resource Center (NPRC), with support of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, in partnership with the Association of Paroling Authorities International (APAI), and in consultation with the National Institute of Corrections, serves as a source of support to paroling authorities as they carry out their important responsibilities in criminal justice systems across the nation.  The NPRC presents this Resource Package on Offenders with Mental Illnesses and/or Substance Use Disorders as part of its efforts to support paroling authorities as they learn and apply the lessons of evidence-based practice and to promote effective collaborations with other criminal justice and community partners.

The package provides an introduction for parole board members to some of the most significant challenges they will face in carrying out their responsibilities with respect to these populations, along with a summary of the latest research and strategic thinking in the field.  Given the prevalence of these behavioral health issues in the correctional population, one of the most important challenges for paroling authority members is to assist in prioritizing the use of scarce supervision and treatment resources to achieve the greatest impact in terms of public safety.

A variety of resources developed by the National Parole Resource Center—its Self-Assessment Tool Kit, a series of Action Guides, and its web site linkages to other resources—all encourage parole board members to develop partnerships with mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals in their own states—to enhance their knowledge and expertise in these areas.  In particular, parole board members will want to familiarize themselves as to what mental health and substance abuse assessments are routinely conducted in their state's correctional system and the degree to which this assessment information is routinely available in offenders' case files.  They will want to be informed as to the nature, extent, location, and accessibility of treatment resources for these populations in their states.  To this end, board members should be provided with ongoing information and training about how to interpret the assessment information they receive (i.e., how certain scores are determined, what information is important for them to consider, etc.).

The following sections of this Resource Guide summarize key issues and current research on offenders with mental disorders and those with substance use disorders.  It then summarizes the "framework" developed by the Justice Center as a structured method to consider overall state strategies in dealing with these populations, and in guiding decisions on individual cases.

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