In the Public Interest

A staggering one in every 31 Americans—one in 18 men—now live under some form of correctional control, whether in jail or prison or on parole or probation, according to a March report from the Pew Center on the States. In fact, America's incarceration rate has increased 350 percent since 1980. America jails or imprisons more of its people than any other nation. Furthermore, studies continue to document the vast overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, especially African-Americans, of whom one in 11 is under correctional control, Pew finds. Mental health and substance abuse disorders exist among the criminal and juvenile justice populations at rates that greatly outstrip that of the general population. However, jails and prisons are not equipped to address these problems. Some have noted the system's revolving-door nature in which mentally ill people move back and forth between homelessness and the criminal justice system.

Recognizing these critical issues, APA's Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest (BAPPI) has identified incarcerated populations, and preventing incarceration, as a priority. More specifically, BAPPI has sought to draw more attention to the issue and psychology's contribution to addressing it. Psychologists have long provided screening, assessment and treatment services in prisons. However, BAPPI's framework goes far beyond treatment to prisoners, probationers and parolees: It calls on psychology to apply its skills, knowledge and perspectives. Preventing first contact with the justice system requires us to focus on developmental issues and risk and protective factors, and orient our approaches toward positive youth development. To prevent recidivism, we must develop and enhance strategies that provide education and vocational training to inmates and former inmates. We must also improve upon strategies that address the underlying illnesses that plague many inmates and former inmates. A focus on evaluating outcomes and employing evidence-based approaches must guide this work.

A proposed APA resolution on psychology's need to respond to the families of incarcerated offenders, submitted by Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology), has received unanimous support from BAPPI and will go before the Board of Directors and Council of Representatives in August. The resolution identifies challenges these families face and recognizes the importance of supporting children of incarcerated people, who are at high risk for emotional and behavioral problems, criminal activity and justice-system involvement.

BAPPI is also raising the profile on these issues through APA's Annual Convention programming that explores psychology's role in the justice system. In the session "Application of Psychological Science to Enhance Crime Prevention, Prison Treatment and Post-Release Parole," attendees will hear from experts on crime prevention, making prisons safe and humane, and treatment issues. Another symposium on innovative strategies for reducing incarceration and recidivism is being planned by APA's Committee on Socioeconomic Status; Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs; Committee on Children, Youth, and Families; and Committee on Women in Psychology.

Meanwhile, APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office works diligently on multiple ongoing initiatives related to juvenile and criminal justice, with advocacy efforts aimed at strengthening the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act; introducing legislation to provide housing and mental health and substance abuse services to former inmates re-entering the community; and passage of the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education (PROMISE) Act.

While government action is needed for true reform of the criminal justice system, psychologists have been and will continue to do the work that keeps incarceration rates from rising. For this reason, when the opportunity for deep-seated reform finally arrives, psychology's voice will be critical to that process.

For details on BAPPI's symposia and other convention programming, as well as other Public Interest initiatives, visit the Public Interest Directorate, or subscribe to our e-newsletter, "In the Public Interest" by e-mailing Public Interest.