The Department of Pretrial and Community Transition Services (DPCTS) was created in 1991 by the Hamilton County Municipal Court to assume and continue the efforts of the Greater Cincinnati Bail Project, Inc., a non-profit pretrial release agency. This agency conducts intake, intervention, program classification, and diversion services in coordination with external agencies to secure and provide pertinent information on defendant risk, eligibility for release, and/or alternatives to incarceration to court-affiliated agencies in an effort to improve decision making on bail and jail population management.
Wendy Niehaus, Director of the Hamilton County (OH) Department of Pretrial and Community Transition Services (DPCTS) helped spearhead one of the first countywide policy teams in Hamilton County to implement a coordinated approach among pretrial services and the courts, community corrections, jail, mental health, and the community to improve responses to women. She started as an intern in 1974 and will retire soon as the Director after an almost 40-year career with the agency. During this time, she has lent her experience to increasing knowledge of gender-responsive strategies, collaborative change management in the field of corrections and criminal justice, and ensuring a legacy of gender-informed programming for justice-involved women in Hamilton County that will pay lasting dividends. The County has implemented a process-driven approach to screening, assessing, and serving women; criminal justice and other stakeholders have benefited from a collaborative approach, and the lessons learned are shared with the incoming staff.
Q How long have you been with the Department of Pretrial and Community Transition Services (DPCTS)?
A Actually it was created or adopted by the Court in 1991, but I started with the agency in 1974. It was a brand new program to address bail practices at a time when bail reforms were being implemented throughout the U.S. I was an intern with the University of Cincinnati and joined DPCTS in July 1974. I worked to implement bail reforms and with the jail the entire time, providing judges with information to inform their decisions with the ultimate goal of achieving better criminal justice outcomes. I also worked with the Vera Institute for three years to evaluate the use of risk assessment tools in the court system.
Q What inspired you to become interested in working for the benefit of justice-involved women?
A A number of things. Early on, when I was an interviewer/investigator in the jails, it was challenging to interview women because they had issues that were outside the realm of my position. What I came to understand was that everyone working with women – judges, attorneys, law enforcement – felt that way; we had a horrible lack of understanding of the women coming into our system. Their numbers kept increasing. Our 2003 Pretrial Annual Report to the Supreme Court indicated that women had increased as a percentage of all detainees requiring a pretrial decision from 21.7% in 2003 to 24% in 2010.
Percentage of Women
That made us pay attention to the women coming into the system. We also didn’t have the financial capacity to address their mental health, health, and substance use needs. So, in the late 1990s we applied for technical assistance from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) and spent 3-5 years developing and implementing strategies to address the needs of women coming into our system.
Q We understand that your agency implemented a gender-informed approach to managing justice-involved women at the pretrial stage. In fact, your systemic approach to implementing gender-specific policies and programs was chronicled in a 2005 NIC bulletin (see the box below). Can you tell us about your approach?
A Hamilton County has a “one-stop shop” booking process for all arrested individuals. Pretrial release services are incorporated into that process and an entire intake area is dedicated to that end. The model developed for women was also developed for the mental health and the drug courts—early intervention to treatment programs. Our programming is about smart intervention, targeting the right services to address the risks and needs of women as soon as they become justice-involved. We talk to each woman about the purpose of pretrial services. At intake, we conduct an interview where we ask each woman very specific, but brief questions about substance use and mental health issues. The women we interview may be high or moderate risk, or high have needs. Understanding the risks associated with a woman’s substance abuse and other compounding challenges is critical to stabilizing her during the pretrial release period. Identifying women experiencing high stressors at intake helps us to understand that she may need a constellation of services.
We rely heavily on evidence-based, validated tools to identify their needs, determine when and where to intervene, and collaborate with other leaders whose services are informed and responsive to those needs. The primary tool we use is the Basis-24, a nationally tested 24-item self-report questionnaire that recognizes a wide range of symptoms and problems that occur across the diagnostic spectrum. Scores are computed over six critical life domains. Many of the women are eligible for specialized dockets where their issues can be comprehensively addressed. The tools help us determine whether she should be further assessed to determine her eligibility for drug or mental health court or for other brief interventions and wraparound services that may be needed at the time. The information we collect from the assessment and interview helps form the basis of a case management work list we develop to prioritize women with co-occurring illnesses. We want to quickly respond to trauma and other co-occurring issues they may have. Based on assessment outcomes, we meet women where they are; relying on case management skills to engage them and build trust. This is so important for the large number of women who come into our system suffering from trauma and substance use. Many of the women have been violated multiple times throughout their lifetime.
Q So it sounds like the key components of your program are smart intervention, using evidence-based tools to identify needs, meeting the women where they are, and collaboration. What benefits have you seen in using a gender-informed approach?
A During our planning process we implemented an intermediate sanctions team, a triage and information sharing protocol, and decided to use jail treatment beds for only the very sick women that would benefit from trauma-informed care. We seek authorization from women to share only certain information so that judges are informed concerning conditions of her release, especially when high risk factors are indicated. We have found that when risk factors are known early on, the legal community and court engage in more meaningful discussions about pretrial conditions. By assessing the needs of women and talking to each judge about conditional release options to support them while out on bond, we found judges more willing to release high risk women. We also found that the women who had participated in pretrial services appeared for court at a higher rate. We attribute this to the commitment by our intermediate sanctions team and treatment partners to engage the women earlier, rather than later, in their involvement with the justice system.
We have also built good relationships with stakeholders. For example, we have a wonderful homeless coalition that provides resources and staff to assist homeless mentally ill individuals upon release from jail. We find that when working with women in survival mode, having onsite social services staff available to assist them right away is immensely beneficial. If a woman is not connected to services, a staff person is available to help her get re-connected. This partnership represents a significant shift in practice; historically, community agencies did not provide services to any individual until there was a final disposition of the case. Now, community support for women begins at arrest. Another resource we gained for women is addiction detoxification services, which is major obstacle for everyone. Before, women could not get into a treatment program until they were medically detoxified. In response, local government officials redirected existing health care levy services to address this gap in services. Now, 5 detox treatment beds are prioritized for women for up to 8 day stays.
Systemic Criminal Justice Planning: Improving Responses to Women Offenders in Hamilton County, Ohio
In 2005, the Center for Effective Public Policy, in partnership with the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), documented the process, accomplishments, and lessons learned from Hamilton County’s “systemic criminal justice planning to improve its response to women offenders.” Choosing to focus on pretrial services, Hamilton County implemented “new programming designed specifically for women with co-occurring disorders (e.g., substance abuse and mental illness), who previously had limited correctional program options.”
Click here to download the bulletin.
Q Have your goals to managing women changed over time?
A It was always an overarching goal to identify and engage women as soon as possible, to intervene and begin responding to their needs before we lost them. That goal hasn’t changed, and we continually work to find alternatives to jail through what is now a women’s collaborative. The women’s collaborative includes members from the criminal justice and behavioral health care systems as well as a number of other community providers. The collaborative was developed after a needs assessment study by the Court Clinic identified women who might benefit from mental health and/or substance abuse treatment. The Alternative Intervention for Women (AIW) program was developed to address this significant gap in services.
The outcome data suggested that implementing a gender-informed system of early screening, assessment, and treatment was helpful to courts in deciding on treatment as an alternative to incarceration. The program has a strong theoretical and research foundation drawn from the work of Dr. Stephanie Covington, Helping Women Recover, and the Dartmouth/New Hampshire model of treatment for individuals with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders. Services are gender-specific and trauma-informed and address women’s pathways to crime, the importance of relationships, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and healing and recovery. Over a 24-month period from 2010-2012, 87.5% of the women who participated in the pretrial intervention process were successful.i Additional gender-informed services for women have subsequently evolved. For example, women involved in prostitution benefit from a nationally recognized peer-run recovery program that is available, as needed, through the collaborative. The evidence-based, gender-informed approach we have taken influenced everything we do. It is the foundation to everything we do. We are proud of the model we have built and feel we are ahead of many communities in connecting women to the right services as early as we can.
Q What challenges did you face in implementing gender-informed practices?
A When a stakeholder makes a unilateral policy change it can interrupt the process of informed decision-making we created. During the planning process, our intermediate sanction policy team learned that justice-involved women were generally classified as lower risk, posing less danger to the community. In order to save jail space, women charged with non-violent offenses were routinely released. This limited our ability to reach them, and without supportive services, these women repeatedly ended up in the system. Helping stakeholders understand the unique needs of women required ongoing education. Collaboration is a lot of work, but the work becomes easier when everyone is informed and committed to system change.
Q What are some of the most compelling lessons learned that you would like to share with others?
A My biggest lesson is what we talked about earlier: The women we encountered did not find their way into the criminal justice system overnight; most had a lifetime of badly-lived experiences. Therefore, it’s going to take longer than overnight to empower them to make positive changes in their lives. We recognize that their lives are complex and that they need specific support. That is why identifying them and intervening at the earliest point in the criminal justice system just makes sense.
Q What advice do you have for professionals who want to achieve better outcomes for the justice-involved women with whom they work?
A Give women hope. No matter if you work in a jail, inside the court, or want to help as a peer or provider from your community, the good news is that gender-informed, gender responsive principles and practices are available to you. The potential is there for you to build a continuum of care by sharing your data, your information, and your commitment to resources.
i Hamilton County Department of Pretrial Services and Community Transition Services, Early Intervention and Conditional Release Report 2010, 2011, 2012.