Pilot program helps keep mentally-ill former inmates from returning to jail

The chances of a released prison inmate with a mental illness ending up back in jail is high, but a pilot program is showing that trend is reversible.

Stephen Cox, a criminology professor at Central Connecticut State University, estimates 25 percent of the state’s 50,000 probationers have a mental disorder, and an earlier state study suggests 40 percent of them will return to jail. Overall, the state’s recidivism rate is estimated between 25 and 28 percent.

“This is a revolving door population. They don’t usually get a lot of attention for treatment like the highly violent offenders do,” Cox said.

But a program providing more intensive supervision by trained mental health officers reduced that recidivism rate to 30 percent, according to a summary report released Thursday by Cox.

“This is a significant decline,” said William Carbone, executive director of the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch and a supporter of the program.

The Mental Health Case Management pilot project, started in eight cities across the state in March 2007, assigned probationers with mental illness to trained officers with caseloads of 35 clients or less. Typically, probation officers have caseloads averaging 100.

The 10 mental health officers in the pilot program are trained to handle the special requirements of their clients, and meet with them at least three times a month.

Cox said inmates with mental illness are diagnosed when they enter the criminal justice system, but got little support when they are released.

“They were slipping between the cracks,” said Cox. “Once they were put on probation, there was limited interaction with the state’s mental health providers.”

Currently the program is offered at 8 of the 18 probation offices across the state – Bridgeport, Hartford, Middletown, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwich and Waterbury. But Carbone said even the 10 mental health officers at those locations are not enough to handle the caseload.

“Certainly we don’t have enough officers to put this everywhere. Lots of other clients are qualified but we are turning them away,” Carbone said, estimating the 10-member pilot program staff would need to be tripled to handle everyone statewide.

But with the state facing huge deficits, Carbone said the money is not there to hire an additional 20 specialized probation officers.

“We would not be able to do this within available appropriations now… We don’t have any time table to launch this statewide.”

Robert Farr, chairman of the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles, said sometimes you have to spend money to save money.

“It’s easy to justify the program,” he said: With fewer people being returned to jail, the state could save millions of dollars.

The Correction Department, which has one of the largest agency budgets in state government at $651 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1, is constantly a target of lawmakers to cut funding by either closing prisons or reducing the prison population.

Carbone said if lawmakers are looking to save money, expanding this pilot program statewide is the perfect place to start.

“This could have real impact,” he said.