When David Brooks was working as a supervisor for Project 103, a drug treatment program at the Frederick County Adult Detention Center, he noticed that some of the people who re-offended and went back to jail hadn’t returned to using drugs or alcohol.
Instead, he said, they had relapsed to the “criminal lifestyle” — selling drugs, stealing, or spending time with people who still used drugs.
“A lot of people don’t really notice that it’s the behavior of the lifestyle that gets people where they can’t get out,” Brooks said. “The criminality begins with the substance abuse, but then they can’t stop doing the behavior that surrounds it.”
That cycle of criminality — and a person’s likelihood of re-offending — is a key focus of Brooks’ new private treatment center in downtown Frederick. The new program focuses on substance abuse from a “criminogenic” lens, assessing clients not only for addiction, but also for their likelihood of re-offending or going back to jail.
In addition to discussing substance abuse, Brooks said he assesses each client with a series of questions designed to calculate their risk of criminal behavior. Some of the risk factors include proximity to drugs — or how easily clients could buy them in their neighborhood — as well as residential stability, employment status and incarceration record.
Depending on the responses, Brooks rates clients on a scale of low, medium or high for their risk of re-offending and separates them by risk level into counseling groups. That separation is important, he said, because low-risk clients often have worse outcomes if they receive counseling alongside those at higher risk.
“For instance, if someone is just smoking weed and they just started and they’re 18, 19, I don’t put them in the same group as a 35-year-old that’s been in prison for five years,” Brooks said. “Those two don’t mix. Because the research shows that when you put someone that has a low risk of committing a crime in with a [high-risk client], then you’re automatically going to make this person at low [risk] worse, and it also doesn’t benefit the high-risk person.”
Criminogenic treatment also has a different timeline than other forms of therapy, Brooks said. While many substance abuse counselors start with a client’s childhood and assess its effect on current addiction, his counseling focuses on the here and now — how to stop criminal behavior before a client re-offends.
High-risk clients go through moral reconation therapy, a process that focuses on moral reasoning and confronting certain behaviors. In a group setting, that can involve clients sharing past mistakes and recognizing the people they hurt — the family member they stole from, for example, or the child they neglected while they were getting high. Fellow group members then assess whether a client has truly grasped those ramifications, Brooks said, and if the client is ready to graduate from the program.
“Really what I’m doing is, I’m reteaching the brain and reteaching the thought patterns,” he said. “What I call the maladaptive thoughts. I’m trying to restructure them so [clients] see that their behaviors do affect people and the community.”
Clients who start at a high level generally take six months to complete moral reconation therapy and graduate down to the medium- and low-level programs. Brooks is also confident in the evidence to back up his criminogenic methods. Recidivism rates among inmates in the Project 103 program were reduced to less than 10 percent using similar treatment methods, he said.
A large study of the Ohio Risk Assessment System also found it was effective at predicting a client’s likelihood of re-offending, and targeting treatment.
“I don’t think there are enough providers out there looking at why people commit crimes,” said Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, who invited Brooks to present his program to other prosecutors. “I, too, believe that we’re not asking people why they’re committing crimes — we’re really taking more of a Band-Aid approach, and David is now trying to address the root causes.”
Other providers, however, said that characterizing people by criminality may increase the stigma that surrounds substance abuse and incarceration.
While risk factors do exist, it’s tricky to try to predict individual behavior through a more generalized assessment, said Malikah Marrus, an assistant professor of social work at Hood College.
“There are some social workers that swear by risk factors, but the thing is, it’s hard to predict,” she said. “Can you really know if someone is going to commit a crime? That can put an unfair label on someone, and you don’t want to create a self-fulfilling prophecy based on these assessment tools.”
Brooks, though, said he remains dedicated to individualized treatment and requires clients to attend one-on-one counseling sessions in addition to group therapy. The key, he added, is addressing trauma in private sessions while focusing on criminal behavior among groups.
“I want those to parallel each other,” he said. “So by the time we get to the end, all the family issues and that kind of stuff are resolved, pretty much, while we’re working on the criminality all together.”