SHSU Supports Expansion Efforts of Harris County Drug Court for Female Offenders

Former Harris County Judge Brock Thomas congratulates a participant in the Harris County STAR Program.
Former Harris County Judge Brock Thomas congratulates a participant in the Harris County STAR Program.

Sam Houston State University is helping to expand and evaluate a drug court program in Harris County for non-violent female offenders with substance abuse issues who have experienced trauma in their lives.

The research by Dr. Gaylene Armstrong and doctoral student Cassandra Atkin at the College of Criminal Justice's Correctional Management Institute of Texas will help assess the impact of the changes to the Harris County Success Through Addiction Recovery (STAR) Drug Court program to better meet the needs of women with substance abuse issues in the criminal justice system. The Changing Women's Lives initiative will address the treatment gaps for women in the program by significantly enhancing outpatient services. The project is supported as a result of a competitive grant received from the Department of Justice’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"The pathway to criminal offending and drug use has a later onset and is significantly more complex for females than for males," said Dr. Armstrong. "Research on female offending and substance abuse indicates that typically a breakdown of individual, familial, and environmental protective factors as well as an increase in fears, anxieties, phobias, and failed relationships precede and perpetuate both offending and substance use. Furthermore, the roots of female drug use are often connected to psychiatric disorders that began prior to the drug abuse. As a result of these complexities, a unique approach to treating these women is needed in order to improve their chances of leading prosocial lives within the Harris County community."

The Harris County STAR Program is designed to bridge the gap between criminal justice and therapeutic approaches to substance abuse for non-violent, repeat drug offenders in an effort to reduce the cost of continuing drug abuse and future crimes. The program aims to serve 150 women during the course of the three year project.

Through the STAR program, all eligible defendants receive innovative and intensive individual supervision by both the courts and treatment providers, which may include rehabilitative treatment facilities, social service agencies, health care providers and other treatment programs. The program uses graduated incentives and sanctions to reward and control behavior and encourages clients to meet education and employment goals through seminars, GED tutoring and employment specialists.

Based on Armstrong's research, the Changing Women's Lives program would enhance outpatient services for women using intensive outpatient treatment curriculum modeled in part after the Texas Christian University (TCU) Mapping Enhanced Program. Based on the diagnosis, targeted female offenders would participate in 60 to 90 days of residential treatment, followed by 14 weeks of intensive outpatient treatment with community service providers. Some women also would be eligible for up to an additional 32 weeks of supportive outpatient services. All programs will follow the same curriculum, which includes workshops improving social skills, problem-solving, and perceptions of self-efficacy through developing social networks; identifying support groups; practicing communication and coping skills; using stress and anger management techniques; planning future efforts; and addressing family issues.

"Given that this population of female probationers is known to have elevated risk levels of mental health disorders and substance abuse, in addition to an existing history of physical and sexual abuse and/or current victimization, it is insufficient to narrowly focus treatment efforts on a single aspect of these women's lives and expect to have a significant impact on their subsequent criminal behavior," Dr. Armstrong said. “The support for these expansion efforts by the Harris County judiciary, local officials and federal government bodes well for improving the quality of life in our local community and underscores the recognized quality of the existing drug court program staff.”

Member of The Texas State University System