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Recidivism and Traumatic Brain Injury: A Vicious Cycle

Inmate holds the hands of someone on the outside through iron bars.

Calls for criminal justice reform ring loud in Colorado. Overburdening of the corrections system is a part of the problem, driven in large part by the state’s rate of recidivism. Half of people convicted of crimes in Colorado return to the criminal justice system within three years.

Seeking a deeper understanding of the issue, researchers at the University of Denver partnered with the Colorado Division of Probation Services, with funding from the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab (Colorado Lab). Their study examined the significant link between recidivism and traumatic brain injury (TBI). In a report released this week, they describe that link and identify four strategies that criminal justice professionals can use to help those with TBI to re-enter the community effectively, avoiding re-offense.

Researchers conducted one of the most extensive such studies to date of probationers. Using data from Colorado jails and problem-solving courts, the study found that 54% of adults in these systems have experienced TBI, compared to less than 2% of the general population. Probationers with TBI have higher rates of felony conviction, lower rates of successful probation completion, and significantly higher rates of re-offense than their peers. Women in jail and on probation, who tend to have a history of multiple TBIs from violent circumstances, are especially likely to be at higher risk.

“This research creates clarity for probation officers, especially those working with women, about how life-long trauma affects behavior today,” says Kristin Klopfenstein, Director of the Colorado Lab. “Now, impulsivity and forgetfulness can be understood as brain injury-related, rather than simply antisocial behaviors.”

Though the study focused on probationers, it is reasonable to expect that inmates and parolees experience similar or even higher rates of TBI and the associated consequences.

Given the epidemic proportions of this challenge, it is critical that probation officers and other professionals in the criminal justice system understand how to support people with TBI. Research suggests four key steps can help:

  • Train criminal justice staff about TBI and its effects
  • Screen everyone in the system for TBI, and then screen those identified for impairment
  • Tailor supervision approaches to boost effectiveness
  • Educate those who suffer from the effects of TBI to strengthen self care.

MINDSOURCE – Brain Injury Network has created the Colorado TBI Model, a best
practice screening, support, and referral model that provides tools to help professionals with the above steps. One such tool is a cognitive screening of each individual with special attention to that person’s strengths and weaknesses. A probationer might need brief, more frequent supervision appointments with their probation officer, electronic reminders, and repetition of key points during supervision meetings. MINDSOURCE has also created a seven-module curriculum called A.H.E.A.D. (Achieving Healing through Education, Accountability, and Determination) that has shown positive results, helping people with TBI to compensate for their injuries and find ways to build productive lives outside of the criminal justice system.

These findings are likely to boost adoption of the Colorado TBI Model, which has already been implemented in several other states. The National Society of State Head Injury Administrators will be disseminating the results nationwide.