Breaking the cycle of frequent repeat offenders
Identifying and diverting ‘super-utilizers’ saves on resources, reduces jail overcrowding
By Daniel Downs, PhD
In October 2019, I attended the meeting of a jail overcrowding taskforce in Indiana where members brainstormed solutions for jail overcrowding. A statement from an officer at the meeting is central to the issue of jail overcrowding: “We need to make sure the right people are in jail for the right reasons.”
The criminal justice system’s objective is to keep the public safe and reduce re-offending. Jails serve as a key component of public safety by incarcerating violent criminals and punishing offenders for crimes against society. Many jails, however, are operating with limited resources and are reporting concerns of overcrowding. 
This article looks at the issue of “super-utilizers” in the criminal justice system and outlines a data-driven solution to interrupt their cycle of incarceration and reduce jail overcrowding.
Who are super-utilizers?
Super-utilizers are individuals who habitually overuse criminal justice resources. These are typically individuals with mental health issues, substance use disorders and residential instability who have a high frequency of incarcerations.
Super-utilizers often commit low-level, non-violent misdemeanors (e.g., public intoxication and disorderly conduct). As a result, jails become a revolving door, which leads to overcrowding. According to a 2019 study by The Prison Policy Initiative, 61% of the people arrested three or more times had a substance use disorder compared to 7% of the general public; 27% had a serious or moderate mental illness. 
why is the super-utilizer population increasing?
The reasons for the increasing numbers of super-utilizers includes:
- Economic and social disadvantage;
- A focus on public-order offenses and zero-tolerance policing;
- The de-institutionalization of mental institutions;
- A lack of available access to mental health and substance abuse services for at-risk populations;
- A lack of understanding and training regarding the co-occurrence of mental health and substance use disorders;
- A lack of resources for identifying at-risk populations for first responders and jails;
- A failure of treatment diversion for at-risk populations;
- Strict post-release supervision.
The current criminal justice system does not fully address the complex social needs of super-utilizers, so they continue to recidivate at high rates. We need to find a better solution to identify super-utilizers and divert them to treatment. This may be key to breaking the cycle of incarceration and lightening the burden on officers and jails (see Figure 1).
What can be done about the number of super-utilizers?
Step 1: Identify super-utilizers
A solution was created to identify super-utilizers using incarceration data. Appriss collects incarceration information from more than 2,900 jails and Departments of Corrections (DOC) nationwide to keep crime victims safe and informed through its VINE service. The data collected in this process can play a crucial role in identifying and diverting super-utilizers.
To determine all the bookings associated with an offender, a linking technology was used to connect various offender identifiers (e.g., driver license, FBI number, offender ID, social security number, and date of birth). This also provided a more comprehensive view of recidivism across county jails.
Next, we developed a data-driven model to identify super-utilizers based on incarceration history and, as a result, an indicator was designed to recommend treatment diversion for criminal justice personnel. Specifically, we looked at key super-utilizer bookings from the previous 12 months (see Figure 2).
The indicator ranges from 0-1000 – the higher the indicator, the greater the recommendation for super-utilizer treatment. The indicator was also developed to inform end-users of specific super-utilizer needs such as substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and residential needs. The model identifies an estimated 4%-5% of individuals as “high risk” for future super-utilizer behavior and treatment diversion.
Due to fragmented care and a lack of coordination across the criminal justice system, super-utilizers continue to recidivate. Therefore, after we identify super-utilizers, we must also provide a diversion path designed to break their cycle of dependence on criminal justice resources.
Step 2: Treatment diversion
After identifying super-utilizers, the next step is to connect them with available and appropriate treatment options. Treatment offers a viable alternative for interrupting the co-occurring substance abuse and mental health criminal justice cycle. Treatment diversion programs are initiatives that redirect individuals with mental health and substance use disorders from the criminal justice system into treatment services. Treatment diversion can be applied at two junctures in the criminal justice system:
- First responders can assess via super-utilizer indicators, exercise discretion, and divert super-utilizers to treatment instead of incarceration (See Figure 3 for user interface mock-up).
- Treatment can be provided as part of re-entry and continuity of care.
Research suggests that offenders with substance abuse disorders who go untreated have a greater likelihood of recidivism and relapsing. According to Huebner and Cobbina, probationers who failed to complete substance treatment were the most likely to return to criminal behavior.  Results showed that individuals who did not complete treatment were 1.69 times more likely to be re-arrested for any crime and two times more likely to be re-arrested for a drug offense.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that in 2018 half of the incarcerated population had a substance abuse disorder.  In 2002, Dowden and Brown conducted a meta-analysis to study the association between substance abuse and recidivism.  Results showed that drug abuse was the strongest single predictor of recidivism. Despite the lack of available resources for treatment, research suggests substance abuse treatment can successfully reduce recidivism.
As reported by the Sentencing Project, New Jersey has effectively decreased its prison population by 31% due to community-based reentry and treatment services.  Virginia’s recidivism rate is the lowest in the country, which is attributable to effective post-release re-entry services, tailored treatment and educational programs.  Immediate connection to appropriate treatment and care services is pivotal to reducing recidivism.
Digital referral platforms such as OpenBeds are available that can help identify, unify and track behavioral health services and connect individuals to available treatment resources and support services in real-time before or after incarceration.
Treatment diversion can be seen as valuable to first responders who often have limited options when dealing with super-utilizers. I recently spoke with Rudy Aranda, a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer who spent 28 years in law enforcement, about treatment diversion for super-utilizers. He said:
When I was in patrol and we arrested people for a 647f (California penal code for drunk in public), we booked them and treatment could be levied by the courts, but at that time the judicial system wasn’t really helping these individuals. If super-utilizers are not a danger to themselves or others then the best approach to alleviate the concern of super-utilizers is diversion at the street-copper level. If given the authority, legislatively.”
What makes treatment diversion successful?
Diverting treatment from the criminal justice system to treatment options works in five key ways:
- Treatment for offenders with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders should have integrated treatment that is tailored to fit their needs.
- Treatment should include skill-building aimed at preventing future offenses and drug abuse, with referral options for vocational counseling opportunities in the community.
- Treatment should be long enough to address and treat substance abuse and mental health issues.
- Treatment should include a support network as part of the continuity of care for offenders as they transition back into the community.
- Treatment should use medication-assisted treatment when it meets clinically recognized standards.
Treatment diversion saves money
One ROI assessment of treatment diversion in Nueces County, Texas, estimated that diverting people with mental illness from arrest to treatment over nine months has saved Nueces County $2.3 million.  In another study of Santa Fe, N.M., the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) has saved 47% by diverting offenders to treatment. 
According to McNiel and Binder, the criminal justice system can save $47,000 for each nonviolent felony drug offender diverted into treatment.  A study by Zarkin, et al. revealed that 10% of eligible offenders were diverted to treatment rather than prison, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion when compared to current practices. 
Treatment diversion can be good for individual health and public safety
The problem of jail overcrowding has quietly been shifting to rural areas, which can be explained by pervasive substance use and negligible treatment services. Resolving jail overcrowding in rural America demands new attention and resources (e.g., investing in community-based treatment diversion). By collaborating, the criminal justice system and treatment services can hone resources to save money and benefit the health and safety of the communities they serve.
Identifying and diverting super-utilizers has wide-ranging policy implications for managing jail inmates before and after release with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Jails are the point of entry in the behavioral health care system for many people with co-occurring disorders. Investing in assessments and treatment plans coupled with post-release community mental health services is vital to individual health and public safety.
For offenders whose criminal behavior is linked to their substance abuse, mental health issues and residential instability, continual incarceration may not be an effective response for intervention. This article presents a new tool for identifying high-risk and high-need offenders for treatment, which helps redirect nonviolent offenders from a life of repeated incarcerations. Given the need to address super-utilizers, the criminal justice system provides a unique opportunity to help break the cycle of incarceration with the potential for improving public health and safety.
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5. Dowden C, Brown SL. The role of substance abuse factors in predicting recidivism: A meta-analysis. Psychology, Crime & Law, 2002, 8, 243-264.
6. The Sentencing Project U.S. prison population trends 1999-2014: Broad variation among states in recent years.
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11. Zarkin GA, et al. Lifetime benefits and costs of diverting substance-abusing offenders from state prison. Crime & Delinquency, 2012, 61(6), 829-850.
About the author
Daniel Downs, PhD, is the senior statistical criminologist at Appriss and has more than 10 years of experience in modeling and developing analytical solutions. Daniel is responsible for crime analytics, R&D and applying advanced statistical techniques. He holds a PhD in Criminology and Law from the University of Illinois and is co-author of the how-to handbook for analytics in retail loss prevention, “Essentials of Modeling and Analytics: Retail Risk Management and Asset Protection.”