Drug Testing In The Field


Studies show that, among offenders, high rates of drug use are associated with high rates of criminal activity. On the other hand, during periods of relative abstinence, criminal activity tends to diminish. Legal pressure or coercion can be effective in enhancing abstinence and improving treatment outcomes. Drug testing serves as the driving force to assess these outcomes.

"Routine drug testing is an essential element of supervision," comments Leonard A. Sipes, Jr., senior public affairs specialist/ social media manager, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), Washington, D.C. The CSOSA provides supervision and support services to adult offenders. On any given day, their Community Supervision Program supervises approximately 14,000 offenders. The agency reports that 58 percent of offenders tested positive at least once for illicit drugs (excluding alcohol) in FY 2012.

Sipes points out that CSOSA supplements extensive offender monitoring with frequent surveillance drug testing. Surveillance drug testing both monitors the offender's compliance with the releasing authority's requirement to abstain from drug use (and usually alcohol use as well), and indicates the offender's level of need for treatment placement.

"Drug testing is necessary to monitor offenders' compliance with their conditions of release, to ensure the successful rehabilitation of offenders, and to reduce the risk to the community of further criminal conduct. Drug testing of each offender will be carried out consistent with risk assessments. Drug testing results can be used to determine and/or refer offenders for treatment based on drug use or abuse," he explains.

He notes that his organization is seeing is an increase in the use of synthetic drugs, as reported by offenders and that they are currently examining this growing trend.

Community Supervision
Carl Wicklund, executive director at the American Probation and Parole Association, Lexington, Ky., says that movements like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) and the California Justice Realignment effort have placed more attention on the important role of community supervision. "Both the JRI and California efforts strive to reallocate cost savings of a reduced incarceration population to communities and community supervision agencies to more effectively provide services to an expected increase in the supervision population. This is similar to the earlier effort many states engaged in several decades ago called the Community Corrections Act. To that end and in response to the outcry for effective community supervision, probation agencies are beginning to experience a number of changes in the way they are organized, the practices they are implementing, and the ways in which they are measuring their effectiveness. It should be noted that individual agencies are at different points in their transition process and that the changes they are generating and experiencing are often dependent on leadership, resources, knowledge, skills, and ever-changing political winds."

He adds that many of the changes occurring are rooted in an effort to implement evidence-based strategies that will result in positive outcomes for the people that community corrections agencies are tasked with supervising, as well as in improvements in the communities within which they work. "Gone are the days of simply counting the frequency of a task completion. To better demonstrate the effectiveness of probation supervision, agencies are now considering and implementing methods of determining whether or not the practices they are implementing or the program changes they are facilitating are bringing to bear improved outcomes—for example, reduced recidivism, alcohol and drug free, restitution paid, return on investment, safer communities."

Drug Testing as a Supervision Tool
Wicklund explains that drug testing has been and remains an important tool for forecasting drug use trends in communities and as a means for detecting use of drugs by those being supervised by the justice system. "Drug use is a common contributing factor in many crimes. Drug testing occurs at nearly all steps in the justice system—pretrial, while detained, on probation or parole, or while in prison." He reports that among the many supervision technologies that exist today (e.g. electronic tracking and monitoring, ignition interlocks, polygraphs), drug testing rates as a top tool that provides information on the behaviors of those being supervised. "Drug testing results are informative to substance abuse treatment programs in helping to ascertain the sobriety of their clients and making adjustments to their treatment regimen. Drug-dependent individuals will often suffer one or more relapses in drug use prior to successfully completing substance abuse treatment. The justice system and treatment programs are recognizing that drug dependence is a physiological malady that has an impact on the brain chemistry that is not easily corrected."

Wicklund says the results of drug testing can also assist probation officers in determining an individual's compliance with supervision conditions (i.e. no drug use) and provide the ability to address non-compliant behavior and reward compliant behavior quickly. "This is often accomplished through the use of a field test apparatus. There are a variety of these tools that are able to test for drugs using urine, hair, sweat and saliva (with varying costs and reliability) at a relatively low cost when compared to a certified laboratory test. This allows initial testing without having to await results from a laboratory which is often sufficient enough for most people on supervision to admit use of drugs if the test is positive for a substance."

Effective Behavior Modification
He adds that regular drug testing (whether random or scheduled) continues to be one of the most common (and sometimes overused) supervision conditions for probationers. "A positive drug test continues to be one of the more common reasons to file a violation report with the court and a popular reason to incarcerate someone on community supervision. However, the use of other sanctions, short of incarceration, have been gaining greater acceptance as the justice system recognizes the need to reduce unnecessary incarcerations while at the same time developing a better understanding of the science behind addiction. Although not yet as popular, the use of incentives for negative test results is gaining in popularity as the field appreciates and tries to implement more effective behavior modification approaches beyond punishment."

Testing Frequency
Sipes reports that CSOSA's Offender Drug Testing Collection Schedule varies based on an offender's prior substance abuse history, level of supervision, and/or length of time to serve under supervision. He breaks it down into four categories:

  1. Offenders with No Indication of Substance Abuse: "All offenders who submit a urine sample which tests negative during the initial test, and who do not have any history of substance abuse will be tested once per week for eight weeks. After eight consecutive negative urine samples, the testing schedule will be reduced to once per month for three months then the offender will be placed on spot drug testing at the discretion of the Community Supervision Officer (CSO) or Supervisory CSO for the remainder of the offender's supervision period," he explains.
  2. Offenders with Any Indication of Substance Abuse: Sipes says offenders with any indication of substance abuse will be placed on a twice per week drug testing schedule for eight weeks. "After sixteen consecutive negative test results (without any substance abuse violations), the testing will be reduced to once per week for four weeks. Then, after four consecutive negative tests, the offender will be placed on a monthly drug testing schedule. If, after nine months, the offender has continued to test negative, the offender will be considered for spot drug testing at the discretion of the CSO or SCSO for the remainder of the offender's supervision period."
  3. Spot Testing: Sipes says CSOs also may refer an offender for a spot test at any time, regardless of the offender's current testing schedule. "CSOs may base a spot test upon information supplied by law enforcement officials or other third parties regarding recent substance abuse by an offender. In addition, the CSO may refer the offender for a spot test based upon firsthand encounters between the CSO, a CSO team member, or the CSO's supervisor and the offender where evidence of substance abuse is present, or at any time pursuant to the CSO's discretion. A spot test also shall be scheduled when a monthly test schedule has been interrupted due to an administrative reason, such as a holiday or computer problem."
  4. Offender Testing Positive During Any Point in Supervision: He says that offenders who test positive during any point of supervision will be moved back to the twice per week schedule and will move progressively through the testing matrix. All offenders testing positive shall be sanctioned according to the Graduated Sanctions Schedule and referred to Central Intervention Team (CIT) for assessment and placement in an appropriate substance abuse treatment modality in accordance with the Agency's Guideline for Referring Substance Abusing Offenders to the Central Intervention Team (CIT) for Evaluation.

Mix of Treatment & Sanctions
Sipes points out that offender positive drug tests are addressed quickly through a combination of treatment referrals and sanctions. In addition to more frequent testing, sanctions for positive drug tests can also include in-house drug education, sanctions groups, GPS monitoring or short-term residential placement. Sipes adds that CSOSA reports offenders' drug testing compliance to the offenders' releasing authority, the United States Parole Commission (USPC) and the Superior Court for the District of Columbia.

"The utility of requiring drug testing for all probationers (whether or not drug use is a recognized problem) or those that have shown over time to be drug-free is a questionable practice that unnecessarily wastes limited resources and places an unneeded burden on probationers that have shown to be drug free," Wicklund adds. "The frequency of drug testing varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and sometimes from judge to judge or supervision agency to supervision agency. The use of randomized assignment for drug testing is likely as effective in detecting drug use as regular tests carried out multiple times in a month," he concludes.

By Bill Schiffner, Contributing Editor