Hope Fueled by Systemic Change

Our Alumni in the Criminal Justice System

May 01, 2016

Tara Gallo (left) clinical doctoral student, intern with the Massachusetts Parole Board and Charlene Bonner, PsyD, member and former Chair of the Massachusetts Parole Board.

When Robert Kinscherff, PhD, JD, says he’s more hopeful than he’s been in two decades, you know change is in the wind.

70 percent of juvenile offenders have diagnosable mental health disorders.

But Kinscherff who launched the William James College Concentration in Forensic Psychology in 2001, also knows enough about the criminal justice system to view even hopeful developments with a skeptic’s eye. He cites a key example: the move to deinstitutionalize state hospital patients in the late 1970s and early 80s was seen as a positive step—but many of those patients ended up in the criminal justice system.

“The existing mental health service infrastructure was inadequate to serve all the people afflicted by serious mental illness, substance abuse, poverty, and racism,” he says. Homelessness became rampant amongst those released, and many were arrested for non-violent or public order crimes—and sometimes, far more serious infractions.

In Kinscherff’s view, today’s juvenile justice system has similarly become a de facto adolescent mental health system due to obstacles in accessing community-based behavioral health services: Seventy percent of youth in contact with the juvenile justice system have diagnosable mental health disorders with some degree of impairment, and 60 percent of those youth also have a substance use disorder. When courts can’t connect young people with community behavioral health services, they often default to the juvenile justice system to address their unmet mental health needs.

So why is Kinscherff hopeful now?

Over the last 5-10 years, the current approach to juvenile justice has been deemed inhumane, expensive, ineffective—and disproportionately punitive of the poor, people of color, the mentally ill, and those struggling with addiction. Instead of helping young people create a different life for themselves, they often commit them to juvenile justice authorities in efforts to access services, but these authorities are not designed or resourced to provide intensive behavioral health care.

Fortunately, there is now a growing movement to offer those who have behavioral health needs other forms of care and treatment.

"We're training more people to look carefully at individuals who are mentally ill and stop routinely feeding them into the criminal justice system." 
—Robert Kinscherff, JD, PhD,
Associate VP for Community Engagement

Kinscherff describes a jail diversion program where trained professionals consult on the spot to intervene in less serious juvenile cases. Initiatives like these train people to work in “specialty” courts like mental health courts, drug treatment courts, and veterans’ courts, with the hope that they can divert those struggling with mental illness, addiction, and trauma into treatment facilities instead of jail.

Jay Toomey, PhD, Director of the William James College Concentration in Forensic Psychology, also applauds recent efforts to intervene in unnecessary incarceration. However, he also offers a caution: “The lifetime prevalence of mental illness among adults in United States’ jails and prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics, ranges from 45 percent to 65 percent for men and as high as 75 percent for women. This number is more than double the typical prevalence rates in the community.” Through his program, Toomey hopes to train students to be highly skilled and educated clinical practitioners who may provide guidance to leaders in the criminal justice system, and act as advocates for the mentally ill in jails and prisons.

Today, several William James College alumni are working in these types of programs across the country, and taking on roles in forensic mental health and correctional systems.

Anna Terry Penque, PsyD ‘09, has been working as a psychologist in the New York Police Department (NYPD) for five and a half years. She primarily does “fitness for duty” evaluations of NYPD members when higher-ups develop concerns about their performance. “Police work long hours in unsafe conditions and experience a great deal of stress,” she explains, and that can lead to problematic behavior, depression, domestic violence, post traumatic stress disorder, and drug or alcohol abuse. She and her colleagues assess the officers and make recommendations to a medical review board about their work status. “What we do is challenging, but I love it—and I’m always learning.”

Penque believes her time at William James College prepared her well for her eventual career: “When I was at the College, the faculty went out of their way to help me develop the clinical placements that were best for me and my goals. Thanks to that support, I was able to get the kind of job I really wanted.”

Charlene Bonner, PsyD ‘04, worked for 12 years at Bournewood Health Systems, including a stint as director of a dual-diagnosis program for patients with substance abuse disorders and mental health problems. She opted to attend graduate school to advance her role there—but her plans soon changed after she started her studies at William James College.

Kinscherff became her mentor in Forensic Psychology, and helped her secure a field placement at the Boston Juvenile Court Clinic, supervised by Clinic Director and College alumnus, Tom Riffin, PsyD ‘89. “Together, they altered the course of my professional life,” says Bonner. “And I have no regrets.”

Under Governor Deval Patrick, legislation mandated that Massachusetts Parole Board include a forensic psychologist in their ranks. Bonner was ultimately named Parole Board Chair by Governor Patrick.

"While many in the public see parole as a 'get out of jail free' card, it is actually a chance for people to begin again, to be reintegrated into society and become productive members." 
—Charlene Bonner, PsyD '04,
Massachusetts Parole Board

The purpose of parole, she explains, is to help people be productive citizens, in addition to protecting the public. The right release conditions can help former inmates become part of their community—and eventually, a gainfully employed and functional member of society. “Parole requirements often include mandatory job training, education, substance abuse help—whatever individuals need to move forward.” Bonner explains, “My goal is to pay special attention to those with chronic mental illness who are too easily passed over. We want to stop the revolving door of prison, and help them access the right resources to move past incarceration, and into a better life.”