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Why do people wind up back in jail? In Pasco, USF researchers try to find out

Factors like childhood trauma, substance abuse and mental health problems “almost guarantee re-incarceration,” a recent study says. Researchers say jails need to do more to help.

LAND O’ LAKES — In 2018, Bryanna Fox got what she called “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The University of South Florida criminology associate professor, along with colleagues and students, got access to the Pasco County jail.

A year and a half later, they’ve screened hundreds of inmates as they were booked into the jail and completed in-depth follow-up interviews with more than 100 of them. And they’ve released first results of their study, which Fox said cast light on common “risk factors” that lead to incarceration and show that more resources are needed to help inmates not repeatedly wind up in jail.

The study — written by Fox, psychology professor Edelyn Verona and Ph.D. candidate Lauren Fornier — was published late last year in the Journal of Criminal Psychology. It shows that Pasco inmates had high rates of childhood trauma, substance abuse and mental health problems.

Related: USF researchers to study Pasco County jail inmates. Could their work improve safety and reduce repeat offenses?

Those were among what the study deemed “risks and needs that almost guarantee re-incarceration.” But help is lacking both in and outside the jail, the study found, contributing to more than 40 percent of inmates returning to jail — a “very high” rate. According to the study, that means that, of the 16,043 people released from the jail in 2017, nearly 6,800 wound up re-incarcerated.

“There are very few treatments and resources available to them to address issues while they’re in jail,” Fox said. “That’s pretty uniform across the United States, so it has nothing to do (specifically) with Pasco County, who has been doing more than the average jail.”

Fox praised the jail for the resources it does offer, which include an array of educational programs as well as some mental-health and substance-abuse programs and faith-based offerings. But the fact that someone’s time in jail could range from hours to years, combined with lots of competition for grant funding, means that jails haven’t been able to implement the right combination of resources.

Bryanna Fox, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, is co-author of a study assessing the factors that lead to recidivism in the Pasco County jail. [Photo courtesy of University of South Florida] [ BRYANNA FOX, AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF CRIMINOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA, IS CO-AUTHOR OF A STUDY LINKING PSYCHOPATHY WITH HOMICIDES. {PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLOIDA ]

The researchers want to draw the attention of the public and of legislators in hopes of getting more resources for inmates, Fox said. That means getting things into jails like cognitive behavioral therapy, where counselors help patients learn to better respond to difficult situations, as well as helping inmates connect with counseling or job programs upon release. And that, she said, means changing conventional thinking about how to fund jails.

“We’re willing to spend money every year to keep people in jail,” she said of the prevailing mind-set, “but we’re not willing to spend money to help with recidivism.”

Capt. Justin Wetherington, who oversees the support services division of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, said the research will help the Sheriff’s Office determine what jail programs are most effective and how it can better work with partners outside the jail.

“We can offer programs and training inside the jail, but individuals need someone waiting for them upon their release to help with the next step,” he said in an email. “If they don’t have a support network in place when they get out, they will often return to what got them in jail.”

Aside from funding, he said, overcrowding poses problems for the jail. After a planned expansion, he said, the jail will dedicate more physical space to inmate programs.

The USF researchers plan to continue their research, Fox said, with more specific focuses based on some intriguing aspects of these first results. Among those subjects are what Fox said is an unusually high percentage of inmates who are women, as well as connections between complaints of physical pain and patterns of drug use.

That the research has yielded anything is notable in and of itself. A study published early last year in the Annual Review of Criminology showed that researchers of incarceration have focused almost solely on prisons, leaving jails chronically under-researched, even though more than 12 million people are jailed in the United States every year.

“It’s challenging to study,” said Kristin Turney, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of California, Irvine who co-wrote the Annual Review of Criminology study. “There’s a lot of instability in the population. There’s a lot of churn in and out of jails.”

But that population ought to be studied, she said, both because of its size and because of how consequential a jail stay can be for the millions who wind up there every year. She noted that even a short time in jail can result in lost jobs, lost housing or damaged relationships.

This study, Fox said, “kind of sets the stage” for future research. “This is why people should care.”

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