Program in Tennessee County Aims to Divert Single Moms From Jail


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A $50,000 MacArthur Foundation grant will help Campbell County develop a gender-responsive risk and needs assessment for women at high risk of incarceration.

Community Health of East Tennessee staff members are all too familiar with prescription drug and alcohol abuse among their clients in Campbell County, located north of Knoxville.

Through its work, the organization’s clinic in La Follette began to draw connections between women—in particular women in Appalachia—at high risk of incarceration and the social and economic barriers to their success.

Poverty and poor standards of living are common threads among women headed for the county’s jail, and the situation is even more dire for single, head-of-household mothers.

“There seems to be a certain mindset among women who may have had exposure to domestic violence, never finished school or had early pregnancies,” Phyllis Clingner, CHET social services manager, told Route Fifty in an interview.

Faced with the reality of being single moms and living under the constant stress, she said, hardships like lacking a car for transportation or child support can seem unbearable. Many turn to drugs or alcohol to insulate themselves, and when they make a mistake and run into trouble with the law, they risk losing their kids.

Searching for model programs for talking to women in these situations, CHET workers discovered University of Cincinnati research into a gender-responsive risk and needs assessment—one they hope will divert 20 to 25 low-income, single mothers from jail.

The proposed tool would ask questions tailored to women and women in Appalachia who are at high risk of incarceration in CHET’s drug treatment programs with the goal of identifying and eliminating challenges they face. Workers will need to be trained and the assessment refined to home in on women’s backgrounds, family experiences and problem-solving and goal-setting skills.

Currently, the only real gender-related question asked of women entering jail, Clingner said, is: “Are you pregnant?”

Development of the tool will be funded with a $50,000 Safety and Justice Challenge grant over 15 months from the MacArthur Foundation’s Innovation Fund. On Wednesday, the foundation announced 20 new cities and counties would receive grants and technical support to design and test criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the oft-overlooked problems of jail overcrowding and racial and ethnic disparities.

Less than 10 percent of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. are in state prisons, the foundation reports, so it created the challenge in 2015 and then the Innovation Fund in 2016 as part of the Obama White House’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative. Campbell County applied for a grant in 2015, but was not admitted to the first cohort.

There are around 12 million admissions to county jails annually, which is 20 times the number admitted to prisons and a fourfold increase over the last 40 years, said Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s director for justice reform.

“Even short stays in jail have negative consequences; they’re disruptive and can lead to loss of housing, jobs and schooling and prevent people from taking care of family,” she said. “That impact is primarily borne by low-income people in communities of color.”

Jails have become “warehouses for people” and a “substitute for dealing with serious social problems,” Garduque added.

MacArthur hopes to promote replicable criminal justice and behavioral health partnerships localities can adapt to meet their diverse needs. But while the grants create additional bandwidth for cities and counties to innovate, Garduque is clear they’re no substitute for government funding and agency alignment on these issues—systemic reform.

Smaller jurisdictions like Campbell County tend to benefit more from the grants because their needs aren’t as great as those of, say, a large city like Philadelphia.

Campbell County’s jail was expanded in recent years, alleviating overcrowding, but women reside in the older part of the facility.

“They don’t have a lot of programs for women,” said Sandy Webber, recovery coordinator with the Eighth Judicial District Drug Court. “There are a few religious ministries that come in but no official programs to help them out.”

The forthcoming Women in Need Diversion (WIND) assessment is also needs-based, so depending on the needs identified, the county will contract different programs and services for the community.

Clients may gain access to GEDs, driver’s licenses or parenting classes they need to find employment and reunite with their children. Case managers will monitor the county’s success rate and build the program out over time, Clingner said.

She credits the county’s success in securing MacArthur’s grant to buy-in from the District Attorneys and Public Defenders offices, Criminal and General Session courts, sheriff, jail staff and CHET.

“They all recognize incarcerated families mean children are going to suffer and do not benefit them in the long run, so . . . they’re willing to try innovative things that have not been tried before,” Clingner said. “Too many grandparents are raising kids, and we’d like to try and keep families together if these women are willing to make the changes that are needed.”

Campbell County will need to be responsive to the vulnerable population and divert women earlier, rather than see them go deeper into the corrections system, Garduque said.

Cities and counties would much rather spend their resources on business development, infrastructure, education and health care than on courts and corrections, but that necessitates an evidence-based culture shift.

“Women are the poster children for all these things wrong with jails . . . They’re most at risk for not only being arrested but not being able to pay low-level money-bail or fines and fees,” Garduque said. “They present certain challenges, which the jail is poorly positioned to address. They don’t pose a risk to public safety, and jail can only aggravate their circumstances—if they lose their children or jobs—and any mental health illnesses they’re dealing with.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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