Comparing Costs of Traditional and Specialty Probation for People With Serious Mental Illness [2018]

Specialty mental health probation reduces the likelihood of rearrest for people with mental illness, who are overrepresented in the justice system. This study tested whether specialty probation was associated with lower costs than traditional probation during the two years after placement in probation.

A longitudinal, matched study compared costs of behavioral health care and criminal justice contacts among 359 probationers with mental illness at prototypic specialty or traditional agencies. Compared with traditional officers, specialty officers supervised smaller caseloads, established better relationships with supervisees, and participated more in treatment. Participants and officers were interviewed, and administrative databases were integrated to capture service use and criminal justice contacts. Unit costs were attached to these data to estimate costs incurred by each participant over two years. Cost differences were estimated by using machine-learning algorithms combined with targeted maximum-likelihood estimation (TMLE), a double-robust estimator that accounts for associations between confounders and both treatment assignment and outcomes.

Specialty probation cost $11,826 (p<.001) less per participant than traditional probation, with overall savings of about 51%. Specialty and traditional probation did not differ in criminal justice costs because the additional costs for supervision of specialty caseloads were offset by reduced recidivism. However, for behavioral health care, specialty probation cost an estimated $14,049 (p<.001) less per client than traditional probation. Greater outpatient costs were more than offset by reduced emergency, inpatient, and residential costs.

Well-implemented specialty probation yielded substantial savings—and should be considered in justice reform efforts for people with mental illness.

Jennifer L. Skeem, Ph.D., Lina Montoya, M.A., Sarah M. Manchak, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services, 15 May 2018