Therapeutic Communities and Criminal Offenders

Dr. Kelli Klebe, Psychology

Kelli Klebe is an applied quantitative psychologist who has been active in three research areas: the application of statistical methods, assessment of the quality of psychological measures, and the evaluation of social programs. In all of these areas, she has collaborated with colleagues on campus as well as working with public agencies. However, her primary research focus has been with the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) evaluating the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment programs with criminal offenders. This research has been continually funded since 1990 with an interagency contract that provides program evaluation research services. The first contracts were for a few thousand dollars and mostly funded a single graduate student to be a research assistant. These contracts have grown in size and scope to over $200,000 annually and currently there are four professional research assistants, two graduate students, and one undergraduate student working on research projects.

In addition, in collaboration with DOC, Dr. Klebe has received funding from the National Institute of Justice to evaluate federally funded treatment programs. Dr. Klebe believes that in providing opportunities for students to do research in applied settings, students will compliment the research skills that are being learned on campus. She has involved students in a variety of ways in these research projects. At a minimum there are two graduate research assistants and one undergraduate research assistant funded each year. Some students use projects for a master's thesis or undergraduate honor's thesis, whereas other students are using these RA positions to strengthen their research skills.

Although a variety of projects have been completed, a major emphasis has been a long-term project evaluating the effectiveness of therapeutic communities (TC) for criminal offenders in reducing recidivism. Dr. Klebe and her colleagues recently completed a major study tracking participants for two years to see if they returned to prison and compared the recidivism rates for five TC treatment groups: those completing a prison-based TC program, those participating in a community-based TC program after release from prison, those receiving both programs, those who dropped out of the prison-based TC program, and a matched control group with participants who were eligible for TC treatment but did not receive it. For the control group, it was found that over 50% returned to prison after 1 year and over 70% returned in two years. TC treatment greatly reduced the recidivism rates for those who received both programs, especially in the first year (10% vs. 50%) and lesser but still strong reductions in the second year (40% vs. 70%) indicating that long-term (over 2 years) intensive treatment provides hope for breaking the cycle of crime in criminal offenders. Additionally, receiving just one program reduced recidivism at one year but those gains were much weaker at the second year. The figure on the following page shows the recidivism rates for each group at both time periods.

Recidivism Rate Graph. In contrast to these positive outcomes for long-term intensive care, in a parallel two-year study of short-term intensive programs, no reductions in recidivism were found for treatment participants compared to a control group. These two studies taken together provide guidance on the types of programs that are most useful to fund. These findings support other national research looking at TC programs.

The next research steps will be to try and predict who will stay in treatment and who will benefit most from treatment. Nearly 80% of criminal offenders have substance abuse needs. However, the largest group in the TC study was prison TC dropouts. This indicates that many people are not yet ready for TC treatment. The next steps in Dr. Klebe's research will be to see if treatment outcomes can be improved by matching participants to treatment programs or if treatments need to be changed to better fit the population of criminal offenders.