Criminal Justice

Troubled teen

APA’s advocacy focuses on recidivism reduction, public safety, gender-responsive justice, mental and behavioral health, and support for law enforcement and corrections agencies.

Our Priorities

Criminal Justice and Mental and Behavioral Health

Mental illness is not a strong predictor of criminal or violent behavior. 

Despite that, the rate of serious mental illness in American jails is reported at 14.5 percent for men and 31 percent for women, compared to 4.2 percent of all adults in the U.S.

Criminal Justice Reform

APA advocates for the phasing out of state and federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses not involving trafficking; allowing judges flexibility to bypass mandatory minimums when an individual has committed a crime as a direct result of their mental health or substance use needs, trauma or victimization history; and adequate resources for programs within the Federal Department of Justice.

Gender-Responsive Justice

As Congress addresses criminal and juvenile justice reform, the public conversation should include a discussion of why and how the pathways of women and girls into the justice system (PDF, 166KB) are different than for men; and the importance of adequate services, safety and support to address women’s needs.

Policy Recommendations

As part of the National Consensus Workgroup on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice, APA's recommendations include:

Federal Support, Training and Technical Assistance to State & Local Agencies

We strongly support existing federal efforts in this area. Yet, meeting the level of need seen across the nation and spurring and supporting systematic reforms requires additional support, training and funding. To that end, we recommend federal support for state and local efforts that are tailored to the needs of specific professions, locales and decision-making points in the criminal justice system.

Federal Courts and Prisons Improvement

Policies we advocate for include increasing resources for behavioral health programming in the federal Bureau of Prisons; pilot programs and expanding innovation efforts, followed by disseminating lessons learned and effective practices; reducing the use and harmful effects of restrictive housing; and policies to support adherence to treatment plans.

Behavioral Health Workforce Development

Congress should build on current student loan forgiveness and repayment programs to include a wider range of corrections and additions professionals; support partnerships between higher education, community providers and local and state correctional agencies to expand training opportunities in correctional settings; and encourage employment-related re-entry programs.

Federal Research, Evaluation and Coordination

Support the evaluation, higher-level analyses and outcome comparisons of diversion and other reform programs; studies to bridge the gap in research on people with behavioral health disorders; create a permanent interagency group on behavioral health issues in the criminal justice system; and support coordinated local, state and federal innovations.

Juvenile Justice Focus on Prevention and Diversion

APA advocates to prioritize prevention programs and identify and serve at-risk juveniles and their families emphasize diversion for justice-involved youth with behavioral health needs; promote polices that limit justice-involved youth from being housed in adult secure facilities, and supports the adoption of evidence-based screening, assessment and treatment of criminogenic and behavioral health needs.

To review all of the Consensus Workgroup's recommendations and further detail, see the group's full report:

Scale and gavel

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Recent APA Advocacy Related to Criminal Justice

August 2018

APA Expresses Concerns About Changes to Transgender Offender Manual

On Aug. 3, APA sent a letter (PDF, 96KB) to the Federal Bureau of Prisons expressing concerns about a recent change to the Transgender Offender Manual. Along with 25 cosigners from the mental and behavioral health community, APA stressed the danger of basing housing decisions almost entirely on “biological sex,” with gender identity utilized to determine housing only “in rare cases.” APA highlighted that overreliance on "biological sex" is problematic because it ignores the complexity of the medical spectrum of sex, including the natural variation in gender identity. APA also pointed out the common misconception that transgender individuals are likely to commit violent acts against cisgender individuals, when, in fact, transgender people are more likely to be targets of violence. APA urged the Federal Bureau of Prisons to revert to previous language in the manual, relying more on gender identity when making housing assignments. 

June 2017

In Letter to Booker, APA Continues to Oppose Juvenile Solitary Confinement

APA submitted a June 8, 2017, letter of support (PDF, 81KB) for S. 329/H.R. 901, the Maintaining Dignity and Eliminating Unnecessary Restrictive Confinement of Youths (MERCY) Act of 2017, introduced by Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Representative Elijah Cummings, D-Md., 7th District. 

Juvenile solitary confinement is a practice in which juveniles are isolated in a cell, sometimes for days or even weeks. While solitary confinement is harmful to adult prisoners, it can have especially devastating consequences to youth whose developmental immaturity leaves them more vulnerable to adverse reactions to prolonged isolation. 

APA argued that solitary confinement should not be used as a means of discipline except in the most extreme, short-term cases. Rather, children and adolescents must have access to age-appropriate services and programming to prepare them to return to the community as healthy and productive young people.

April 2017

APA Urges FY 2018 Department of Justice Funding to Support Evidence-Based Reform, Those with Mental Illness, Victims of Violence

In April 28, 2017, written testimony, APA advocated for federal funding aimed at reforming the criminal justice system, supporting those with mental illness within the system, meeting the needs of victims of violence, and ensuring that the best scientific evidence is funded and used to make programmatic and policy changes. The testimony was submitted to a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations. Specific recommendations included:

  • Funding for reform-minded approaches, such as cognitive behavioral treatment in residential reentry centers, the Second Chance Act and the Indigent Defense Initiative (Answering Gideon’s Call), plus research and evaluation dollars.
  • Funding for juvenile justice programming, such as Part B formula grants.
  • $20 million in Bureau of Prisons funding for changes to restrictive housing intended to provide better alternatives.
  • Adequate funding to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
November 2016

Allow the Use of Medicaid for Limited Prisoner Reentry Health Services, APA Urges

APA sent a Nov. 18, 2016, letter (PDF, 138KB) to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) asking them to approve New York State’s request to use Medicaid funds for limited services to individuals in prisons and jails. 

Currently, CMS bars states from using federal matching funds for services delivered to inmates of public facilities, such as jails or prisons. This creates a gap between services provided in facilities and services provided in the community that is associated with recidivism and problems maintaining health gains post-release. New York State requested the flexibility to use federal matching funds to provide care management and coordination, consultation with community providers, and certain medications to individuals with chronic physical, mental, or behavioral health needs who are within 30 days of release. APA hopes that CMS will afford this flexibility to the State and looks forward to reviewing evaluations of the effort, as more effective strategies in this space are desperately needed.

November 2016

Coalition Urges Congress to Finalize Current Year Spending

A coalition of groups focusing on juvenile and criminal justice policy sent a Nov. 16, 2016, letter (PDF, 47KB) to Congress urging lawmakers to finalize federal fiscal year (FY) 2017 spending. FY2017 began on Oct. 31, 2016, and Congress extended funding levels from FY2016 through a continuing resolution (CR) at that time, instead of enacting full FY2017 spending bills. While CRs keep the government running, they create confusion, delay and disruption of services, because state and local grantees do not have the information they need to plan and execute their activities. On Nov. 17, 2016, majority leadership in the House and Senate announced they would extend funding through March 31, 2017, though another CR.
November 2016

APA Members Brief Congress About Police-Community Relations

On Nov. 15, 2016, APA held a congressional briefing, Improving Police-Community Relations: Psychological Perspectives, a recording of which is available on YouTube. The panel included Ellen Scrivner, PhD, a psychologist consultant specializing in public safety innovations and transformative practice. She has a long history of leadership in community-oriented policing and is a recognized national expert in criminal justice, police behavior and public safety. Scrivner discussed her experience as a senior law enforcement official, what she has found most challenging and effective within community policing and the relationship between police forces and communities of color.

Dr. Ellen Scrivner and Dr. Earl Turner
Dr. Ellen Scrivner and Dr. Earl Turner, our presenters
Erlanger Turner, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown and an expert on child mental health and health disparities, also spoke on the psychological effects of violence and racial trauma and the perception of police bias in communities of color.

Congressional sponsors for the event included Reps. Doug Collins, R-Ga., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and Bobby Scott, D-Va. Scott also attended the briefing, delivered remarks and asked questions of the panel during the Q&A session.

June 2016

APA Expresses Support for Juvenile Justice System for Girls Act

APA sent a June 20, 2016 letter of support for the Juvenile Justice System for Girls Act to Rep. Rosa DeLauro. Specifically, the letter supported:

  • Increasing programs, treatment, and training of staff in gender-responsive services. The development and/or improvement of gender-responsive services in juvenile justice systems have the promise to create better outcomes for girls. APA applauded the bill’s focus on the disproportionate risk of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections among at-risk and justice-involved girls.
  • Addressing trauma through trauma-informed services and trauma-specific interventions. The majority of girls and women in the justice system have experienced either physical, emotional or sexual trauma at some point in their lives; effectively addressing trauma is critical to their recovery and rehabilitation.
February 2016

APA Outlines Mental Health and Criminal Justice Priorities for Senate Hearing

APA submitted a Feb. 10, 2016, statement (PDF, 119KB) included in the congressional record for a Feb. 10, 2016, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, “Breaking the Cycle: Mental Health and the Justice System.” The committee selected a consensus panel of witnesses who approached the issue from advocacy, criminal defense, corrections, law enforcement and policy perspectives. Committee members agreed on the importance of addressing mental health in the justice system and the methods to do so. APA's statement:

  • Provided background on the prevalence of mental health needs in the criminal and juvenile justice systems and shortage of community mental health treatment. 
  • Highlighted practices to reduce the number of individuals with mental health needs formally processed in the justice system and provide effective treatment to those who must remain in the justice system.
  • Recommended federal policy changes directly related to ongoing efforts in Congress to reform the federal criminal justice system, including:
    1. Creating federal problem-solving courts.
    2. Allowing judges greater discretion to consider alternatives to mandatory minimum sentences when an offense directly relates to an individual's mental health need, addiction, trauma history or victimization by another.
    3. Eliminating automatic revocation of supervised release and probation for minor drug offenses.
January 2016

Coalition Comments on Foster Care, Juvenile Justice within Federal Education Policy

On Jan. 21, 2016, APA joined other national organizations in submitting comments to the Department of Education to promote timely and effective implementation of the foster care (PDF, 320KB) and juvenile justice (PDF, 440KB) provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). 

Children in foster care and in the juvenile justice system often have unmet needs and lack access to critical resources. Once implemented, ESSA will promote collaboration among agencies that will improve the stability and success of these children.

December 2015

National Organizations Ask Feds to Address Use of Restraints on Incarcerated Pregnant Women and Adolescents

APA, in conjunction with five national partner organizations, released a statement calling on Congress and the Department of Justice (DOJ) (PDF, 367KB) to work with state and local governments to restrict the use of restraints on incarcerated women and girls during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recovery. 

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have laws or regulations restricting the practice. However, these policies vary widely in their scope and comprehensiveness. Furthermore, unofficial and news reports in states even with strong restrictions in place indicate that the practice continues with regularity. This situation illustrates the need for a stronger federal role in curtailing the practice. The joint statement proposes three specific federal policies: 

  • Data collection by DOJ on pregnancy and the use of restraints in jails and prisons. There is an alarming dearth of information on women's health in America's correctional facilities, and it is critical to capture a more accurate baseline and collect information regularly, to guide reform efforts.
  • Training and technical assistance by DOJ, to ensure successful implementation of efforts at the state and local level to restrict the use of restraints.
  • Continued leadership by the Bureau of Prisons, which can build on its existing policy restricting the use of restraints by reporting on lessons learned and supporting DOJ's training and technical assistance. 

The joint statement also calls for standardized pregnancy care by qualified professionals, evidence-based and trauma-informed care and mental health services, and other gender-responsive correctional policies and practices.

December 2015

APA Letters to Congress Seek Prohibition on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

APA sent a Dec. 14, 2015, letter of support (PDF, 129KB) to the House of Representatives for the Protecting Youth From Solitary Confinement Act (H.R. 4124), sponsored by Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif. Juvenile solitary confinement is a practice in which juveniles are isolated in a cell, sometimes for days or even weeks, associated with harmful consequences for both mental and physical health.

The association also sent an Oct. 20, 2015, letter of support for legislation in the U.S. Senate seeking to prohibit juvenile solitary confinement in federal facilities: The Maintaining dignity and Eliminating Unnecessary Restrictive Confinement of Youths (MERCY) Act of 2015 (S. 1965), sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) passed with bipartisan support in October 2015 by the Senate Judiciary Committee and includes the MERCY Act. 

Efforts continue to advance the House legislation.

October 2015

APA Voices Support for Federal Criminal Justice Reform Efforts

APA sent October 2015 letters of support to the sponsors of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 and the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015 (PDF, 124KB). Both bills seek to save public funds on over-incarceration, protect public safety and help former inmates succeed in the community. 

The Senate bill, S. 2123, also contained provisions to protect juvenile records and to curb solitary confinement of juveniles. The House bill, H.R. 2944, also proposed to: 

  • Create problem-solving courts for veterans and individuals with mental and behavioral health needs.
  • Provide additional flexibility for judges to bypass mandatory minimums when an offense directly relates to an offenders mental health needs, addiction, trauma or victimization history. 

APA also asked members of its Federal Action Network to urge members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to support the bills and the additional SAFE Justice Act provision on mandatory minimums.

July 2015

Coalition Comments on Federal Guidance on Gender-Biased Policing

APA joined with national, state and local groups in a July 6, 2015, letter (PDF, 458KB) calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to publish guidance on gender-biased policing of domestic violence and sexual assault cases. This guidance was identified by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as necessary for a coordinated community and law enforcement response. 

The groups involved in this effort expressed concerns to DOJ about improper and sometimes illegal responses to domestic violence and assault that endanger and violate the civil rights of survivors. In response, the Department has taken steps to investigate complaints of police misconduct involving domestic violence and sexual assault. However, more is necessary, and formal guidance is a critical next step.

March 2015

Psychologists Take to the Hill to Support Trafficking Legislation

On March 25, 2015, APA held an advocacy training and Capitol Hill day for Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology (LIWP) participants. Forty-one psychologists provided 39 congressional offices — including meetings with four members — with the executive summary of the APA Report of the Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls and advocated passage of trafficking legislation, such as the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (S. 262). 

The enthusiastic responses from members of Congress and their staff underscored the importance of psychologists coming to the table to help policymakers understand the psychological sequelae of trafficking and intervention strategies to protect vulnerable populations from becoming victims. Released in 2014, the timing of the task force report coincided with increased congressional interest in this growing problem. Critically, this report makes recommendations to advance research, education and training, advocacy and public policy, public awareness, and practice, as they pertain to the intersections of psychology and the problem of human trafficking. As noted by the task force, U.S. citizens both fall victim to and perpetrate trafficking within the United States and abroad; the majority of individuals identified as trafficked in the U.S. for labor or commercial sex are women and girls.

February 2015

APA Offers Psychological Expertise to President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing

As part of its continuing efforts to highlight the role of psychological research in improving community-police relations, APA submitted comments on Feb. 17, 2015, to the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The comments highlighted research on equity-based policing, community-based policing, and behavioral health interventions to reduce stress and improve behavioral health with police departments. Recommendations to the task force included increasing behavioral health resources within police departments. The task force was scheduled to send its final report to the president in early March 2015.
December 2014

APA Submits Testimony Highlighting Psychology’s Insights into Police-Community Relations

APA submitted written testimony for a Dec. 9, 2014, hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, "The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States." The testimony detailed how psychological research provides fundamental insights into:

  • Prejudice, discrimination and perceptions of ethnic minority individuals.
  • Racial profiling, police-community relations and non-biased criminal justice and educational policies.
  • Employment discrimination and equitable workforce policies.

Psychology provides tools for reducing prejudice and plays a strong role in advancing civil and human rights. For example, the testimony highlighted contributions of psychological research in improving police-community relations in light of recent conflicts and violence between police and minority communities.

It is critical that psychological science play a central role in the continuous improvement and reform of criminal justice systems, policy, and practice.
—David DeMatteo, JD, PhD, ABPP, Director, Drexel University JD/PhD Program in Law & Psychology

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