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Adult Criminal Justice & Diversion

Program Description

Adults involved with the criminal justice and forensic mental health systems often experience a range of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. These psychiatric symptoms and behavioral manifestations can be especially difficult to manage in criminal justice settings, including pre and post-arrest, during pretrial detention, while on probation, and at multiple points during their incarceration. Accordingly, various agencies (police, courts, probation, parole, and corrections) can benefit from relevant research regarding the adoption of best practices for management of individuals with mental health and substance use disorder during their involvement with the criminal justice system at-large.

Our work focuses on improving the identification of and response to persons in mental health or substance abuse crisis at various stages of justice system involvement. We help law enforcement, court, and corrections systems adopt best practices for interventions to address mental health, addiction, and risk reduction needs to decrease the likelihood of recidivism and improve mental health and well-being.

Our research is collaborative and involves a number of state agencies, including the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, the Massachusetts Executive Office of the Trial Court, and Massachusetts Probation Services. Our work has been funded by a range of state and federal organizations, including the National Institutes of Health and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Our work has focused on:

  • Implementation of standardized and research-informed methods for screening and assessment of risk and needs, mental health, and substance abuse
  • Developing methods of improving, standardizing, and systematically evaluating specialty courts, such as Drug Treatment Courts and Mental Health Courts
  • Implementation of Risk-Need-Responsivity approaches into criminal justice and forensic mental health practice
  • Assessment of forensic issues and national policy to assist judicial decisions, such as appropriate diversion of persons with mental illness and/or addiction
  • Integrating mental health and substance abuse treatment into criminal justice settings
  • Law enforcement, corrections personnel, and court officer trainings for identification and management of individuals with emotional disturbance, mental illness, and substance use disorders


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Gina Vincent, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Co-Director of Law & Psychiatry Research

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Dara Drawbridge, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Massachusetts CoE Specialty Courts

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Spencer Lawson, Ph.D.
Sr. Research Scientist

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Michelle Crist, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Associate

Ongoing Research

Building Equity in Objective Prison Classification: A Model for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Title: Building Equity in Objective Prison Classification: A Model for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Funder: National Institute of Justice (NIJ)/W.E.B. Du Bois Program of Research on Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Justice System

Total Funding Amount (Direct + Indirect): $599,976

Dates: 1/1/2024-12/31/2027 

Description: Dr. Spencer G. Lawson was awarded a National Institute of Justice grant through the W.E.B. Du Bois Program of Research on Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Justice System. The title of this award is “Building Equity in Objective Prison Classification: A Model for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities.” The project will focus on building a scalable method for achieving racial and ethnic equity in objective prison classification, which investigators intend to disseminate to correctional agencies nationally via a collaboration with the National Institute of Corrections. The goals of this four-year project are to collaborate with the Massachusetts Department of Correction to 1) examine the magnitude and drivers of racial and ethnic disparities in their Objective Point Base Classification System, 2) facilitate adjustments to their classification system to reduce observed tool bias and disparities, and 3) pilot the adjustments to evaluate their differential (or equitable) impact on custody level placements and access to programming, both of which impact length of incarceration. Findings will culminate in the design of a generalizable Building Equitable Objective Prison Classification Toolkit to guide correctional agencies nationally to build or improve their existing prison classification systems with an equity lens, while still preserving public safety and institutional security.